Toward Context Sensitivity
Ann Grodzins Gold
I accepted Jack's invitation to join this session with an emotion I can only describe as dread. Prior to his email, I had firmly decided not to go to Denver, and indeed had already become involved in organizing a session for AAA (it makes for a killer November to do both I can tell you). A couple of weeks ago, when I thought I had better organize my thoughts, I looked for the AAR file on my computer and discovered I had named the folder, last spring, "Denver01misery". I have to say that—in the wake of September 11 and its aftermath of ongoing violence—last spring's dread and misery have seemed to me nothing if not petty, and even unworthy of further consideration. However, Laurie's email, with the bold dictionary definitions of "defamation," somewhat re-kindled both emotions.
I do not wish to squander my remaining nine-and-a-half minutes rehearsing the sorrows of last winter, but it isn't possible to ignore them completely because that is why we are here. Luckily, I had been reading Saurabh Dube's still unpublished book manuscript Stitches on Time. Saurabh was a participant in the "Who Speaks for Hinduism?" session a few years back—a session to which today's might seem a kind of less mellow, or more melancholy, sequel. For some editorial reason I don't understand, his contribution was not included in the JAAR volume that emerged from that session, but will be part of his new book which he has given me permission to cite.
Dube argues that at the heart of the "Who speaks" forum was the anxiety of Western scholars, "under threat from vociferous critiques of a postcolonial provenance" and thus fearing that they would be denied the right to speak. He writes quite evocatively, even poetically, of "anxieties and aggressions produced within everyday encounters and quotidian confrontations in academic arenas . . . "—experiences many of us share, whatever our religious or ethnic identities. Dube does find some potential value in dealing with all of this, a challenge to think through "the ambiguities and ambivalences, contradictions and challenges, and predicaments and possibilities at the heart of the current cultural politics of identities and the contemporary political cultures of scholarship."
But he also questions the terms in which the challenge was formulated. Reasonably enough, he observes, "Many speak about Hinduism. Some speak around Hinduism. For a few it is perhaps possible to speak from within Hinduism(s). But speaking for Hinduism? . . . . " The implication is; how can that be?
So, the primary lesson I take from Dube is the foolishness of imagining or reifying a singular entity over which any of us should indulge in tug-of-war. I know this has been said before, more than once, but it seems to get just as regularly forgotten.
Dube is not at all sanguine about the prospects of finding what he calls a "talking cure" to these problems. Yet, if the ready alternative to the talking cure in today's mental health world is a pill, we in academia have not yet synthesized a quick chemistry of equilibrium. Thus we find ourselves here, trying once again for a talking cure, in a case that could seem still more hopeless.
Rather than embracing hopelessness, I will suggest that if there is a cure it lies in two related practices: 1) sharing or diffusing any and all claims to authority among all concerned; and 2) remaining sensitive to contexts—both points to which I shall return. But first I do need to explain a little about my own close encounter with Rajiv Malhotra and the Infinity Foundation, which was one major impetus for Jack's organizing this session.
I don't want to speak in terms of defamation but of pain. Both parties to this encounter were wounded, I believe, in their deepest sense of self. Both, moreover, felt self-righteous to the bone. In terms of understanding what actually took place at last year's AAR, both parties' memories could not be more totally at odds. Were we in the same room at the same time?
Interestingly enough, my paper—the one Rajiv found objectionable—was about the workings of memory. And our divergent interpretations of the memory panel go to support this paper's major point. Its opening sentences were these:
Various readings have characterized memory, from one perspective or another, as a "brightly lit theater of the world"; a "mirror of the dark abyss of the mind" (both cited in Hutton 1993); the breaking waves of the ocean (Halbwachs 1992); lava that "melts away the earth" from the dead and makes them live again (old Jewish lady cited in Myerhof 1992); "not only a spring, flowing from the well of the past, but also a tomb, whose contents climb like withered ivy to the mind" (Langer 1991: 69); "a roadway full of potholes, badly in need of repair, worked on day and night by revisionist crews" (Kirmayer 1996).
I think as we look at the disparate interpretations from Rajiv and from me as to what took place in my paper and the session, we can see just such processes: the revisionist crews are hard at work, the waves of the ocean are shaping the shore.
To speak from my viewpoint then, briefly: In my paper about memory I took examples from an oral history project I've been working on, collaboratively with an Indian co-author, since 1993. These examples were of memories gathered in interviews with women and men from a leatherworking community, a few of whom recollected abuse by some members of the Kshatriya community, about fifty years back, although often in veiled terms.
The word Hinduism appeared exactly once in the paper, in the phrase: "devotional expressions within Hinduism" from the bottom of the ritual hierarchy—with a reference to well-known poets such as Raidas and Chokhamela. I argued that, as these poet-saints had done before them, disempowered persons in the twentieth century might find in Hinduism's mythic and devotional expressions sources of and mediums for strength and resistance.
To Rajiv, just by mentioning disempowered persons residing in India, I was defaming Hinduism. He had come to the AAR to learn the ways that American academics dealt with what he prized and held most dear. What he saw and heard in my talk, which used slides, was not what I thought I was showing: old women, looking back from a happier time in the nineteen-nineties to recollect some of the sufferings of their youths, under the rule of kings and colonizers. Rather, he saw defamation at work, and the experience upset him so much he left the session before it was over. For Rajiv, images of leather workers, and their critiques of the behaviors of a few abusive land owners in a small kingdom sixty years ago, were assaults on his existence as a Hindu in America.
He subsequently published an account of his anger on his web site and in a newsletter, referring to my paper as an example of "typical Hindu bashing."
Now, I felt assaulted. To me, the words "Hindu-bashing" burn so badly I can neither write nor speak them without a shudder in my gut. I felt as if my twenty years of appreciation for and participation in Indian culture, and my whole self, professional and human, had been assaulted (of course this is the crux of Euro-American postcolonial anxiety to which Dube points; this is not hitting close to home, this is home).
In his published account, Rajiv wrote about the AAR meetings in general:
What would shock most Hindus attending this [AAR] for the first time would be the nature of portrayal of Hinduism in American education. It is nothing like what you would find at a temple, ashram or Hindu gathering. Rather, it is mainly an arms-length 'objective' view typically dominated by graphic details of the social ills of Hindu society—caste, women's abuse, poverty, pollution, superstitions, animal worship, animal sacrifice and the like. This material permeates college teaching about Hinduism and India in a big way, and in many instances also secondary schools.
Notice two things in Rajiv's published report that are crucial to my message. One is the statement that goings-on at the AAR are "nothing like what you would find at a temple, ashram or Hindu gathering." The other is the immediate leap from AAR to college teaching. The issue of context is very important in both these statements.
Is this an impasse beyond healing? Frankly, I felt initially that it was—my impulse was to withdraw. "Why should I deal with this? I'll go to the anthropology meetings."
However, nothing is ever that easy. For one thing, I have always been myself deeply concerned with false impressions of Hinduism prevalent in the US; as I teach it at the introductory level almost every year, I have to counteract these perspectives in my courses. So I find myself in considerable sympathy with my so-called "defamer" (who responded with prompt and kind consideration to my impassioned protest, immediately removing my name from his publications and assuring me that it was nothing personal, and I had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time). Once again, context is all.
A.K. Ramanujan, as everyone here of my generation probably knows, wrote a wonderful essay, published in 1990 but widely circulated and cited much earlier, titled "Is there an Indian way of thinking?" I wish I could read you the whole thing! For the question is phrased in multiple fashions with multiple answers and subtle nuances that simply refuse summarizing. In it Raman suggests that if there is any characteristic pattern of Indian thought, it is "context-sensitivity." He finds commonalities of context-sensitivity in his father who was both a mathematician and an astrologer, in Sanskrit grammar, in Tamil aesthetic theory, and in the Laws of Manu—which prescribe (this just happens to be the example Ramanujan selected) a smaller fine for a Kshatriya who defames a Brahmin than for a merchant (hmmm).
As the Infinity Foundation seeks to showcase the many contributions of Indic civilization to the world, I would hope that this subtle one of context-sensitivity might be included not only as subject but as practice. (In many ways it seems to me to anticipate recent important philosophical arguments such as Donna Haraway's about "situated knowledge.")
The AAR is, I believe, a context, an academic forum, where we should be able to present our current research—theoretically framed—to a limited audience of scholars. If, when presenting work here, we make no claims to be speaking "for Hinduism" we should be taken at our word. There are many other contexts in which we behave differently. For example, I teach almost every year, Religion 285, a basic introduction to Hinduism. In that class I am acutely sensitive to my position as a Euro-American outsider, in front of an audience that always includes Hindus as well as Christians, Jews, and occasional Muslims and Buddhists. I am acutely and perpetually alert to the possibilities for mis-representation, to the concerns of insiders, and to the prejudices of outsiders. I do not talk of untouchable women in that introductory course. I teach the Upanishads, Valmiki's Ramayana, the Gita, Kabir and the Virashaivite poets in Ramanujan's beautiful translations.
This teaching has been a learning experience for me since I first stepped into the classroom—fall 1985, Cornell, as a new visiting assistant professor in a class called "Perspectives on South Asian Culture." I planned to use a lot of films, and the first one I showed I had thought quite exemplary in its clear illustration of ritual action: "Hindu Sacraments of Childhood."
This film features South Indian Brahmins in the city of Madras, urban elites, performing elaborate rituals for infants and children that are right out of fourth century Griyasutra texts.
In my class, a young Punjabi, non Brahmin, raised his hand the minute the film was over, and declared in no uncertain terms, "nobody in India does rituals like this any more . . . "
As a novice teacher, I couldn't help but be deflated; my authority had been challenged, and by an insider! I tried to explain that such rituals might indeed be rarely performed, or not at all where he was from, but that some Brahmins in South India were evidently still doing them; or at least they were, when the film was made . . .. I expect I sounded rattled and defensive and a bit lame. One problem of course is with the false claims of the title "Hindu Sacraments of Childhood." This has to be contextualized as South Indian Brahmins, who care about ritual, in the nineteen sixties, demonstrating their valued cultural performances for an American Sanskritist and his film crew. I learned later from Dan Smith, the film maker, that the whole thing was staged, as no polluting, barbaric foreigner would have been allowed to be present at the real rituals . . ..
This does not mean that with appropriate contextualization we could not still gather some knowledge of life cycle rituals from these documentaries (though now dated in style as well as content).
The larger lesson I have carried through another fifteen years of teaching is always to talk about multiplicity, and context; and always to offer to share authority with students, especially Indian students, in a fashion they can trust.
Luckily India gave us the fable of the blind man and the elephant, and I bring this up in my first class. I tell the students of South Asian descent that rural Rajasthan is my piece of the elephant, while theirs may be urban Bombay, or New Jersey (and I must credit and thank Joyce Flueckiger for helping me arrive at my own strategies by telling me hers).
Over the years, I have significantly altered my syllabus content as a direct response to objections and suggestions from Hindu students; I no longer show videos with animal sacrifice; I no longer try to deal with Ayodhya in a two-week unit at the end—not on the grounds that such conflicts should be hidden, but that two weeks are not enough in an introductory course to produce anything but confusion—which was clear enough to me from the Euro-American response papers. I don't feel as if I am succumbing to censorship in these negotiations, but rather sharing authority and being sensitive not only to student identity issues, but to the context of an introductory course; a context that I would insist is quite different from that of the AAR—which is indeed neither a "temple, ashram or Hindu gathering," nor a college classroom.
So, to recapitulate and close my own bit of this brave and shared attempt at a talking cure, where we have our rawest nerves exposed, I have two medicines to prescribe for everyone—Hindus, scholars, teachers, students, insiders, outsiders. academics and non academics. These are shared authority and context sensitivity—although, of course, according to the latter principle, the doses of both medicines must vary depending on the situation and the symptoms. I hope that if we dose ourselves appropriately with these two remedies we can in the future avoid the language of defamation, and its attendant anguish.