April 13, 2016

American Scholars studying Hinduism and India face intimidation, threats and smear campaigns for deviating from the views of the Hindu right

Inside Higher Education

The Religious War Against American Scholars of India

Highly respected professors face intimidation, threats and smear campaigns for deviating from the views of the Hindu right.
April 12, 2016
The distrust and even disdain with which many practicing Hindus view the scholars who study their religion would likely surprise many outside the confines of the field. A cultural and religious war is raging in which Western academics are the enemy.
Cover of Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus: An Alternative History.Disputes over alleged mischaracterizations of Hinduism and India by Western scholars are long simmering and boil over from time to time. This happened in 2005-6, when Hindu groups battled with scholars over proposed revisions to descriptions of the religion in California middle school textbooks. Tension boiled over again in 2014, when the book The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and probably the most prominent American scholar working in Hindu studies today, was withdrawn from circulation in India after its publisher settled a lawsuit claiming that it defamed followers of the faith.
And now again in 2016. In February scholars in India initiated a petition calling for the removal of a major Sanskrit scholar, Columbia University’s Sheldon Pollock, from the general editorship of a Harvard University Press series of Indian classical texts on the grounds that his writings “misrepresent our cultural heritage” and that he had “shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India” (this of a scholar who has received the Indian president’s award for Sanskrit, as well as the Padma Shri Award, one of the Indian government’s highest civilian honors). Among Pollock’s stated offenses in the eyes of the petition signers was his support for recent statements condemning the arrest of a student leader at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University on the charge of sedition.
Also in February, the University of California at Irvine accepted a faculty committee’s recommendation to walk away from gifts for endowed professorships in Indian religions from donors with specific ideas about how Hinduism should be studied. The faculty committee concluded that that any association with the Dharma Civilization Foundation, which has publicly stated its views about specific scholars whose work it finds problematic and which has sought in particular to promote scholarship by Hindus, about Hindus, “is inconsistent with UCI’s core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion, toleration and respect.”
And now at the K-12 level, the struggle over how Hinduism is taught in California public schools has been renewed. A new online petition that has received more than 23,000 signatures accuses a group of South Asian studies faculty who proposed changes to social studies curriculum documents of seeking “to erase India and Hinduism from California’s schools.” The Hindu American Foundation has even launched a #DontEraseIndia campaign. At issue are questions of whether it’s historically accurate to use the word “Hinduism” to describe the religion of ancient India -- the members of the faculty group argue that it isn’t -- and the faculty group’s suggestions that certain references to “India” be replaced with “South Asia” or “Indian subcontinent.”
These disputes about the history of Hinduism and India have frequently pitted Hindu believers against non-Hindu scholars -- though some Hindu scholars have also been targets of criticism -- and outsiders to the academy against insiders. They have tapped into postcolonial anxieties and puritanical attitudes toward sex. Many see the continuing rise of the Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, movement -- a right-wing ideology that views India as a Hindu nation -- as providing ideas and fuel for the struggle, but not everyone who shares in the suspicion of academe is an ideologue. The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum has written that many who join or sympathize with the campaign against academe in the U.S. are not affiliated with the Hindu right at all but rather are Indian immigrants seeking “a positive image of their tradition to present to their children” and sensitive to perceived insults to India’s history or Hinduism by (as the narrative goes) “callous American orientalist scholars.”
At the heart of all this is a widely shared sense that Hinduism and the integrity of India are under assault by Western academics. In turn scholars might say they’re the ones under attack. Academics who have written controversial things about Hinduism have reported receiving death threats and hate mail, and the overall level of vitriol in the social media sphere where many of these debates play out is high.
“The dominant narrative has led to a very, very deep suspicion on the part of the community of the academy,” said Anantanand Rambachan, a professor of religion, philosophy and Asian studies at St. Olaf College.
“The community has the impression that in the teaching about the tradition there is a deeper focus on what I may label more broadly as its problematic dimensions -- on patriarchy, on social hierarchy, on caste -- and somehow the claim of the tradition to offer a meaningful worldview for human flourishing does not get spoken about a great deal,” said Rambachan, who, unlike most of his colleagues at American universities, is a practicing Hindu himself. Rambachan has called for more Hindu theologians who can build bridges between the academy and the religious community.
“There is this concern -- what happens to a tradition or how is it taught when the majority of its teachers don’t have an existential commitment to the tradition,” Rambachan said in an interview. “I think there’s a fair question about it, although I don’t think that justifies the sort of demonization of the academy that we get unfortunately in some Hindu groups. I think that there should be more appreciation of the good teaching that is happening in colleges and universities about the Hindu tradition -- and there is a lot of that.”
Accusations of Colonialism and Orientalism
Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and a leading figure in the humanities, is the author of the book-length study The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future (Harvard University Press, 2009) and co-editor, with Doniger, of Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right (Oxford University Press, 2015). Nussbaum said via email that the disputes over Hinduism and Indian history are not new.
Cover of Wendy Doniger and Martha C. Nussbaum's book Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right.“It is a very old story,” she said. “For about 20 years at least, members of the Hindu community in the U.S. have been carrying on a well-funded campaign to substitute an ideological Hindu-right version of Indian history for serious historical scholarship.” Nussbaum said that this version of history, propagated by the Hindu right since the 1920s, overstates the age of the Vedas by at least 1,500 years and makes false claims for Hindu indigeneity to the Indian subcontinent (where, as Nussbaum summarized the narrative, they lived “peacefully, with no conflict or strife, until Muslims arrived to create strife and try to dominate Hindus” -- and until the British Christians arrived to participate in the oppression of Hindus after that). This version of history also holds -- again falsely, Nussbaum said -- that “traditional Hinduism was highly puritanical about sexual matters, and the sexual element has been introduced by leftist and Western scholars.”
“India is one battleground for such ideas, since textbooks were massively rewritten during the first domination of the Hindu right, and they are now being rewritten again,” Nussbaum said. “But the U.S. is a particularly fertile ground for the struggle, since most Americans don’t know anything about India, and even second-generation Indians are often ready to believe what they are told. Forty percent of Americans of Indian origin are Gujarati, where the Hindu right has immense strength.”
“The other factor is that most scholars of India in the U.S. in the older generation are not from India,” Nussbaum continued.
“They are Americans who love India’s civilization and religion and who have developed great scholarly skill and knowledge, rather the way that other scholars develop knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman religion, although they are not Greek and Roman. Of course there is nothing wrong with this: knowledge is open to all, and India is fascinating, so it is natural that people not from India should share that fascination. But the fact that these people are not Indian gives an opening for the Hindu right to attack, cleverly exploiting the tropes of anticolonialism. So they say that the (correct) representation of Indian history and the history of sexuality is a Western plot, cooked up to defame Hinduism and Indians. Unfortunately, in the absence of scholarly knowledge, the public is all too ready to believe such tales. Wendy Doniger of my own university has been a particular target, because of the zest and humor with which she depicts the sex lives of the gods and heroes -- following the ancient texts, but pointing to features of the texts that the Hindu right doesn't want to hear about. The story they then circulate is that Wendy is a kind of Circe figure, luring in young scholars and getting them to say inappropriate and defamatory things about India. Of course it is not this way at all: Wendy was drawn to Hinduism because it struck her as a religion more joyful and less puritanical than the religions dominant in the West, and it’s natural that her work would emphasize that aspect.”
A figure at the center of the critique of Doniger and other Western scholars is Rajiv Malhotra, a retired information technology executive and philanthropist who in 1994 founded the Princeton, N.J.-based Infinity Foundation to support the academic study of Hinduism in the U.S. He quickly became one of Hindu studies’ most visible -- and vehement -- critics.Rajiv MalhotraRajiv Malhotra, Wikimedia Commons
“Not being a passive donor, I read seriously whatever was being produced in academic Hinduism studies,” Malhotra said in written answers to questions. “This engagement was my full-time work and not a side hobby. I raised issues concerning serious errors, omissions or blatant biases. I quickly learned that critical feedback of a serious nature -- especially from those outside the control of the academic establishment -- was not welcome. Scholars of Hinduism were accustomed to Indians acting as ‘native informants.’ I was the native informant talking back too much.”
In 2002, Malhotra published an essay on the website Sulekha titled “RISA Lila -- 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome,” which the scholar and McGill University professor Arvind Sharma has called the “tipping point in the relationship between the academic and faith communities.” Sharma wrote that the paper “transformed the Hindu perception of the Western academic community from one of adulation, or at least acquiescence, to one of suspicion and even hostility.”
In “Wendy’s Child Syndrome,” Malhotra criticizes what he considers to be the “eroticization of Hinduism” and the use of Freudian interpretative frameworks by Doniger (the Wendy of the title, alternately described as “the Queen”) and several other scholars he considers to be under her influence (“Wendy’s children”). Malhotra accuses the scholars he analyzes of projecting their own psychoses on their study of Hinduism (hence, the “syndrome” with which they’re afflicted). He asserts, for example, that “Western women, such as the famous professor herself, who are suppressed by the prudish and male chauvinistic myths of the Abrahamic religions, find in their study of Hinduism a way to release their innermost latent vasanas, but they disguise this autobiography as a portrayal of the ‘other’ (in this case superimposing their obsessions upon Hindu deities and saints).” (Such language presages that of the later legal complaint in India against Doniger’s book, which described her approach to studying Hindu scriptures as “that of a woman hungry of sex.”)
“Though the academy became increasingly defensive as a response to my article, the Hindu public intellectuals and activists gradually woke up,” Malhotra said. “They started to see things differently and began speaking about experiences that validated what I was writing about. Numerous movements got started with the purpose of ‘reversing the gaze.’ Today there are a very large number of Hindu voices expressing themselves and closely monitoring whatever the academicians produce. I am no longer alone in this. These movements have taken a life of their own.”
Malhotra is a controversial figure to say the least. Some scholars have accused him of distorting or misrepresenting their arguments, and he found himself at the center of plagiarism charges last summer after Richard Fox Young, the Timby Chair for the History of Religions at Princeton Theological Seminary, issued a series of tweets with the hashtag #Message4Rajiv citing examples of unacknowledged quotations he’d identified in two of Malhotra’s books. Most of the passages Young identified involved material from a book by a State University of New York at Stony Brook professor, Andrew Nicholson, who in turn published a piece in Scroll India titled “Upset about Rajiv Malhotra’s plagiarism, even more upset about distortions of my work.”
In response, Malhotra emphasized that he cited Nicholson extensively in his book Indra’s Net and attributed cases of missing quotation marks to copyediting mistakes. He went on to say that the publisher had just issued a new edition of Indra’s Net in which he had replaced most of the references to Nicholson’s book with what he described as “references to the original Indian sources.”
Back on message, Malhotra said, “This syndrome is a subject of my research -- namely, the western Indologists plagiarizing from Indians and rewriting in new clever English to claim originality.”
Malhotra can be understood as a David Horowitz-like figure, a culture warrior lacking an academic position but boasting a passionate following and bearing a sharp and unsubtle message about the lamentable state of academe (albeit a specific segment of academe in this case). As Malhotra wrote of his credentials, “My claim to be qualified is that I fill a major need felt by my community, and the people to judge me are my target readers … I am not writing for the academics. I have no academic career goals whatsoever. That system is obsolete and needs serious reform.”
Indeed, Malhotra has published multiple popular books developing his arguments about the ways in which Western academics seek to undermine Hindu thought and the integrity of India (one of his books is titled Breaking India). His most recent book, The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive? (HarperCollins, 2016) features a critique of Sheldon Pollock and is cited in the petition calling for Pollock’s removal from the chief editorship of the Harvard Press series. (Pollock declined through a Columbia departmental administrator to comment for this article.) Malhotra, who accuses Pollock of engaging in a “tendentious reading of the Indian past and of its present problems that is fixated on caste, class, race and gender oppression and regards our cultural achievements as tainted by this legacy,” faulted journalists who covered the petition drive for failing to draw attention to the more than 17,000 “votes” (that is, signatures) the Change.org petition opposing Pollock’s editorship had received compared to the approximately 170 “votes” received by a counterpetition. “This is a ratio of 100 to one. The public has spoken loud and clear,” Malhotra said, in this way making a bid for the legitimacy of a popular Internet “vote” on a question of an academic appointment that would typically be reserved for the judgment of trained scholars.
Sheldon PollockSheldon Pollock, Wikimedia Commons Here is a classic outsider/insider tension, and it plays out in these debates in two main ways -- who is an outsider and an insider to the academy, and who is an outsider and an insider to the Hindu faith. Who, as a now all-too-familiar question goes, speaks for Hinduism?
Another “outsider” to the academy but “insider” to the faith who has written extensive critiques of Western scholars is Vishal Agarwal, a biomedical engineer by day and Hinduism teacher on weekends who devotes much of his free time to studying literature on the Hindu tradition. He recently published a book-length critique of Doniger titled The New Stereotypes of Hindus in Western Indology (Hinduworld Publisher, 2014).
“The departments of classical study of ancient India (Indology) and South Asian studies in the West are today the last bastions of colonialism,” Agarwal said. “Indians in general and Hindus in particular are still perceived by Western academics as the ‘exotic, erotic other’ through a very distorted and a demeaning lens. In the name of scholarship, which is really hatred and racism in disguise, Hindus are routinely characterized as misogynists, oppressive, minority killing, irrational, violent and debauched. Indian culture is reduced to ‘cows, caste, curry, sati and dowry.’ The fault lines in the Indians’ society are exaggerated in these so-called works of research, in a replay of the ‘divide-and-rule’ policies of British imperialists in colonial India.”
Paul B. Courtright, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University whose 1989 book Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (Oxford University Press) has been criticized by both Agarwal and Malhotra (Courtright has the distinction of being one of Doniger’s metaphorical children), said the image of Western scholars as all being out to criticize Hinduism is a caricature -- which is ironic, he said, because the critics accuse scholars of Hinduism of caricaturing the religion.
“This slightly paranoid notion that we just can’t find enough bad things to say about Hinduism is just nonsense,” Courtright said.
Jeffrey J. Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University -- and another of Doniger’s so-called children -- said he thinks the critics are sincere in their beliefs that Hinduism is being mischaracterized or misconstrued by Western scholars. “But I think it’s simply false,” Kripal said. “They’re not being focused on in any unusual way. Anyone in the study of religion knows that infinitely more has been said about the sexualities of the Bible than any Hindu scripture or Hinduism altogether. The methods and the ideas that they object to are just standard fare in the humanities and the study of religion, and they’re applied across the board, first and foremost to the Western tradition.”
“When Western, white scholars study Hinduism they do so out of love,” Kripal continued. “Nobody studies Hinduism to colonize it or to demean it. It takes decades to learn the languages and to live in India, and we do all of that with very little guarantee that we’ll ever even get a job. Scholars of religion are incredibly dedicated and study what they study out of deep, deep respect and admiration for the traditions. It doesn’t mean they believe them or agree with them, but they’re certainly not out do the things these Hindutva voices claim.”
‘Deep Cultural Differences and Assumptions’
Cover of Jeffrey J. Kripal's book Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna.Kripal’s 1995 book Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (University of Chicago Press), about a 19th-century Hindu saint, won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book in the History of Religions award that year. It has also been the target of two failed book-banning campaigns in India and skewered by critics who objected to Kripal’s discussions of sexuality and questioned his translations.
Kripal eventually shifted his scholarship away from Hinduism as a result. “I was really the first American Indologist to be targeted by these groups of people in ’96 or ’97,” he said. “I stuck with it and responded as best as I could for about six or seven years. It just wore me down after a while. At some point I felt like it wasn’t worth it anymore, that it was starting to affect my health. I couldn’t go anywhere, any conference or anything, without having to deal with the thought police, as it were.”
Kripal has written extensively about the controversies surrounding Kali's Child on his website. “It is not an exaggeration to say that I have felt great pain, great sadness and great frustration during these years: pain for the way my work has been grossly misrepresented or radically misunderstood, sadness for the missed opportunities of understanding and dialogue, and frustration at the sense that virtually all of the hurt feelings (on all sides) are a result, certainly not of ill intention, but of deep cultural differences and assumptions about spirituality, sexuality and the study of religion that too often seem to be virtually insurmountable,” he wrote. “Still, we must try.”
In a New York Review of Books article about the lawsuit against her book in India, Doniger identified a “clash between pious and academic ways of talking about religion and about who gets to speak for or interpret religious traditions. The misunderstanding arises in part from the fact that there is, in India, no real equivalent of the academic discipline of religious studies. With only a few recent exceptions, students in India can study religion as a Hindu or Muslim or Catholic in private theological schools of one sort or another, but not as an academic subject in a university. And so the shared assumptions underlying this discipline are largely unknown in India.”
“What’s happened now in America is an attempt for Hindus to argue for the inclusion of a kind of religiously oriented Hinduism inside universities -- that is to say, they say, ‘Jews are teaching about Judaism, Christians are teaching about Christianity, Hindus should be teaching about Hinduism,’” Doniger said in an interview. But she said this represents a confusion between interreligious dialogue -- in which representatives of various religions should speak for them -- and religious studies.
“They’re really concerned about the reputation that Hindus have with non-Hindus in America. That’s why they want to control the universities,” said Doniger, who clarified that by “they” she meant a certain group of Hindus in America, not all of them. The idea, she said, “is not just that there should be a place for Hindu children to learn about Hinduism but that the world should no longer hear the white man’s colonial version of Hinduism. Not only do we really want to tell our story, but we really want to stop you from telling our story.”
Meanwhile, scholars of Indian origin deemed to deviate from the narrative of the Hindu right risk being branded as “sepoys,” the word for Indian soldiers in the British army, or otherwise described in traitorous terms.
Deepak Sarma, a professor of South Asian religions at Case Western Reserve University, was surprised to find himself mentioned in a 2012 Dharma Civilization Foundation report as having been indoctrinated by Doniger, his former teacher at Chicago, “brainwashed to act like a Brown Sahib!” -- a derogatory term used to describe Indians who mimicked the manners of the British.
Sarma was so surprised to see himself described in that way not least because he considers himself sympathetic to -- if not in agreement with -- some of the criticisms of Hindu studies coming from outside the academy. He has written extensively about insider/outsider tensions in Hinduism studies and has more recently (since the DCF report) written critically about what he’s termed the “Doniger difficulty” and the “postcolonial passions” her work provokes.
“If you look at my colonial writing, or even my writing about Wendy [Doniger], I’m showing the flaws from within,” he said. “I’m credentialed to be critical of this world in a way that Rajiv Malhotra is not.”​
Kalyan Viswanathan, the Dharma Civilization Foundation's executive vice president, said he regretted the release of the DCF report in question, which included a list of academics whose work it disapproves of and another list of favorably viewed “scholar-practitioners,” defined as those “who have been trying to imbibe the spirit of Hindu ethos in their personal lives, as well as in their teaching.” Viswanathan said DCF officials withdrew the report in 2012 after the foundation received feedback saying it wasn’t helpful to divide scholars into camps in that way. (DCF continues to identify specific examples of scholarship it finds problematic on its website and in a promotional video available on YouTube.)
That said, Viswanathan defended DCF’s overall objective to help support the development of a cadre of scholars who can challenge the dominant paradigm as he sees it. The foundation issued a statement after UC Irvine rejected its gifts saying the “overwhelming message” it had received “is that the Hindus are not welcome to participate at the academic table.”
“What DCF would like to do, if we are allowed to do it, is to support the emergence of a group of scholars who can at least present alternative perspectives,” Viswanathan said.
“The focus of the scholarship is almost entirely on the caste system and railing on and on against it,” he continued. “There is so much more to Hinduism than the caste system. If you ask a Hindu what are the salient points of Hinduism, they would point to entirely different things. They would talk about yoga, they would talk about the Rig Veda, they would talk about the plurality of ways of seeing the divine, Hindu art and architecture and music. There’s so much to actually focus on.”
A group of South Asian studies faculty from across the globe who signed an open letter expressing concern about DCF’s now defunct gifts to Irvine suggested, however, that a donor’s intention to fund professors with certain types of religious views or sympathies violates both antidiscrimination law and standards of academic excellence. “While it is possible that scholar-practitioners of a religion can enrich its study, it is widely accepted that being a practicing member of a religious group should not be a requirement for studying and teaching that religion,” they wrote. “We fear the DCF’s efforts will lead to the appointment of scholars who do not represent the intellectual richness and rigor in religious studies and South Asian history. South Asia is a deeply heterogeneous multireligious subcontinent, and its religious practices are highly decentralized, varying across region, class and caste. Academic study requires empathy, curiosity and rigor, not a certificate of belonging or a methodology that is monitored by donors.”
The Context in India
The struggles over scholarship in the U.S. take place against a context in India in which many academics are concerned about the growing strength of the Hindu right under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and what they describe as an assault on higher education as a bastion of leftist politics and thought. These concerns crystallized in February around the arrest of the student union leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University for sedition for allegedly making “antinational” statements at a student protest marking the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man convicted for his role in a deadly 2001 attack on India’s parliament. Many believe Guru did not receive a fair trial.
Massive protests across India followed the arrest of the student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar. Academics from around the world (Pollock among them) have signed solidarity statements. One of these statements, for example, opposes the arrest as “further evidence of the present government’s deeply authoritarian nature, intolerant of any dissent,” and objects that the charges against Kumar are without any basis in proof.
What happened at JNU has taken on huge import in the Indian political imagination. Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of English at the University of Cambridge, has in The Guardian described it as a possible “watershed moment” for India, with the country “poised on the brink of a choice between the dangers of authoritarianism and its historic commitment to dissent.”
“JNU has long been regarded as a space for dissident discourse,” Gopal said in an interview. “What has happened is there has been an intensification of the kind of impunity with which Hindu nationalism has infiltrated and is trying to appropriate various national institutions.”
The debate over Modi’s leadership and the climate for free expression in India has reached the shores of American academe. More than 100 American faculty members signed a statement last August raising concerns about what they identified as problematic developments during Modi’s first year in office in relation to speech rights, religious freedoms, rules on nongovernmental organizations, judicial independence and academic freedoms. The statement, published on the American Association of University Professors’ blog “Academe” in advance of Modi’s planned visit to Silicon Valley, urged technology companies to be cautious in doing business with a government that has “demonstrated its disregard for human rights and civil liberties, as well as the autonomy of educational and cultural institutions.”
The subsequent firestorm of angry comments the “Academe” blog received prompted its executive editor, Aaron Barlow, to write two separate posts reflecting on the level of “vituperation.” [. . .]

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