Defamation - Dialog of Civilizations

Panch (Five) Asymmetries in the Dialog of Civilizations:
A Hindu View

Rajiv Malhotra
The Infinity Foundation

To have a genuine dialog of civilizations, the 'other' side (in this case the Hindus) must be present as themselves and not via proxy, must be able to use their own framework to represent themselves, and must be free to anthropologize and criticize the west without fear of undue censorship or academic reprisal. However, five asymmetries resulting from the present imbalance of power often obstruct this dialog today.

Before describing these asymmetries, I wish to clarify that I represent neither pole of what has become a bipolar fight for the representation of Indian culture: I am not representing the Hindutva view, which should not be conflated with Hinduism, because: (i) Hindutva is a political mobilization, (ii) it is a recent 20th century construct in response to contemporary situations, and (iii) it assumes a specific (reductionist) package of stances, whereas most Hindus pick and choose positions from an a la carte menu of choices.[1] At the same time, I do not deny their right to a position within the vast spectrum of Hinduism, as one of many ways to be a Hindu. At the other pole, is the theory of Hinduism defined as The Evil Brahmin Conspiracy. Most Hindus I know belong to neither extreme, although there has been a tendency for one pole to insist, 'if you are not pink, you must be saffron', and vice versa. The vast middle is un-essentialized space, where creative dialog can take place, and it is in this middle space that I position myself and the observations below.

The five asymmetries, of which the first three concern academic translations of Indic culture, are:

I. Anthropologist Versus Native Informant:

While unintentional in some cases, scholars often seem to operate on the notion that distance (intellectual, cultural, geographic) produces objectivity. But distance has been the antithesis of dialog, and reciprocity is the key to dialog.[2] Western anthropologists use native informants, who are typically poor and less educated villagers paid to produce the data, and who typically place the scholar on a pedestal because of their own limited material resources and the glorification of India's xenophile elite. Scholars mine such data, filter it through western lens, legitimize it with western peers who are part of their own academic system, and too often assert this Orientalist construction as 'the truth'. Few today do this overtly or intentionally. However:

There is little or no counterbalancing information flow to help the villagers learn what was said and published about them by the scholars.

There are hardly any independent surveys or focus groups in the field to ascertain whether villagers disagree with the ethnographies that become standard descriptions about them, or to point out what was left out, distorted or improperly contextualized.

Villagers should be able to give their own opinions of the scholar as the 'firangi white woman' from America, including her exotic or peculiar ways—they have agency. Researchers do include how villagers react to, admit, get used to, or query the scholar, but this itself is usually the dominant culture's own filtered presentation.

All measurements disrupt. I am unaware of any controlled studies comparing a neighboring village that was not disrupted by such a prolonged scholarly intervention, so as to evaluate the social re-engineering side effect that the scholarship might be causing.

While there are many sensitive researchers, there needs to be greater recognition of the need for reciprocity. This calls for dis-intermediation of the role of anthropologist as knowledge broker between the villagers and the American students. I do not yet know how to achieve true 'independence', but a plurality of cross-cultural worldviews would be better than one dominant view. For instance, besides reverse surveys, native informants could get invited to panels via video phones that are now very cost effective, with translators. Perhaps, the scholar-as-broker feels threatened that the native informants would be found to have agency after all, and to challenge decades of research. This is especially severe when the White Woman's Burden drives the scholar to impose her gift of agency on poor people presumed to have none.

Are the native informants becoming victims of the scholars' violation of trust? I propose that an interactive dialog between equal civilizations become anthropology's new hermeneutics. I request that scholars expand their work to enhance validation and symmetry. Exactly how this could happen would need considerable joint exploration.

II. Western Scholar of Texts Versus Pandit:

The use of pandits is another method by which the west re-maps Indian culture. Many pandits are simple and straightforward, not aggressive compared to many western scholars, not into power games or concern for royalty or intellectual property rights, and are trusting of western intentions. The mis-appropriation of basmati rice and other intellectual property may be used as an analog to appreciate that the Indian ethos does not emphasize personal ownership of know how (including spiritual knowledge), and that some of what the west does is unethical and exploitative as per the pandits' own system of professional ethics. One must inquire whether the publish-or-perish syndrome and personal egos cause some scholars to try to own pre-existing knowledge and to reduce pandits to native informants, whereas in their own tradition they deserve respect as great humble teachers.

Furthermore, since pandits are rarely invited as respondents or co-authors when the work gets presented, they do not always find out what finally gets published, and their interpretation sometimes gets distorted along the way. For instance, when scholars write that Ganesha symbolizes the limp phallus, or when they over-interpret sati as a defining feature of Hinduism, should the reader not be told what the insider has to say also? Sanskrit terms that deserve thick descriptions often get reduced to simplistic Eurocentric and Abrahamic representations.[3] Even comparative religion is often framed in a paradigm of western superiority. Is it that scholars see pandits as not having western PhDs, and hence as not legitimate experts of their own tradition

III. Cognitive Scientist Versus Yogi/Meditator:

The laboratory measurement of higher states of consciousness achieved by advanced yogis and meditators is at the cutting edge of transpersonal and humanistic psychology, mental health, neuroscience, and phenomenology. And some Indic theoretical models are at the center of the philosophy of quantum physics based emerging worldviews. But many ancient Hindu-Buddhist inner science discoveries are being mis-appropriated and/or plagiarized:

'Lucid Dreaming' is the western name for Indo-Tibetan nidra yoga, and Stanford's Stephen LaBerge is nowadays the acknowledged discoverer.

'Mindfulness Meditation' is Jon-Kabat Zinn's trademarked repackaging of vipassna.

Herb Benson repackaged TM into his 'Relaxation Response' and now runs a multimillion dollar business based at Harvard, claiming these as his discoveries. Numerous spin-offs in mainstream stress management and management consulting theories came from this source.

Rupert Sheldrake recently 'came out' in an interview acknowledging that his famous theory known as 'Morphogenic Resonance' was developed while researching in India's ashrams.

Ken Wilbur started out very explicitly as an interpreter of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy for the benefit of psychologists, but now places himself as the discoverer on a higher pedestal.

Esalen Institute appropriated J. Krishnamurti and numerous other Indic thinkers into what its contemporary followers regard as it own 'New Worldview'.

Thomas Berry, Brother Keating (successor to Bede Griffiths), and others have constructed the New Liberal Christianity, using Indic appropriations. Jewish scholars have likewise constructed the 'non-dualistic Kabala' based on Vedanta.

This is only part of a long list: the core of the emerging 'western' worldview and cosmology involving physics, cognitive science, and biology is being rapidly built upon repackaged Indic knowledge, but too frequently the source is being erased and over time. Yogis and meditators, who should be regarded as co-discoverers, usually remain anonymous 'laboratory subjects' and native informants.

Does this remind us of the way America is said to have been 'discovered' in 1492, as though the millions of Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years did not matter? It became a bona fide discovery only when Europeans registered it as such. Because land owned by the natives had not been recorded in European registration systems, their ownership was declared illegitimate. Much of the Renaissance and Enlightenment of Europe was based on the appropriation of Indic and Chinese civilizations, and yet these civilizations were demonized to justify colonialism.[4]

I have been told in private by some of the cognitive science mis-appropriators that they respect Indic traditions greatly and personally know them as the sources, but that in public the distancing is good for book sales and for securing research grants, and that the stamp of 'western science' is what legitimizes these traditions. Their position, stated quite openly in many cases, is that discovery occurs only when the west appropriates something. This appears to be a racist theory of knowledge, one that denies agency and rights to non westerners. Also, while plucking the fruits, there is no attempt by these appropriators to nurture the roots of the source traditions.

A plausible theoretical model for this is: The west plagiarizes from Hinduism-Buddhism with one hand (i.e. cognitive science), while another western hand stereotypes the source as 'caste, cows, curry' exotica and worse (i.e. anthropology/religious studies). The academic arson referenced above is merely a continuation of the age old 'plunder while you denigrate the source' process at work. It is a continuation of the paganization of pre-Christian religions while at the same time appropriating many central elements from the pagans into Christianity.

IV. RISA Versus Hindu Diaspora:

The Hindu Diaspora, which includes non-Indian Hindus in yoga-meditation centers, is usually kept out of the RISA fortress. Huston Smith, in the Spring 2001 Harvard Divinity Bulletin, describes certain western scholars' attitude towards Hinduism as "colonialism updated". When compared to science, technology, business, and other professions where Indians now routinely achieve the highest positions, Indology remains perhaps the last holdout of colonialism. Indians with self-esteem and experience in dealing with westerners are seldom included as dialog representatives in a joint enterprise to study the tradition.

Meanwhile, Indian Marxists and Macaulayites—born again as 'progressives' after the Cold War—dominate India's academe, and often power broker and become strategic allies with western academicians as experts on India. But there are many contradictions in these intellectual sepoys: (i) While many are Subalternists, India's masses, classics and culture are often alien to them, and they disrespect and caricaturize Hinduism in a reductionist Eurocentric way. (ii) Instead, they know mainly western thought and hermeneutics. (iii) Yet, their careers are based on being proxies for the very tradition that they regard as a scourge.[5] The phenomenon of South Asianizing, which has emerged from this confluence of excessive ethnography and Indian Macaulayism, has subverted Hinduism's universal truth claims. Contrast this with other world religions—for instance, Christianity is not defined in terms of Middle Eastern ethnography, although it is studied also in sociological terms. Furthermore, the Diaspora feels that the ethnographies of South Asia get superimposed as their image.

Anyone speaking assertively for Hinduism is too often branded as Hindutva, saffronist, fundamentalist, fascist, fanatic, neo-BJP, nationalist, or equivalent.[6] In fact, the only way to be a good Hindu in the eyes of some is to behave in accordance with Orientalist images.

V. Asymmetric Hermeneutical Power:

There is asymmetry in the license to criticize: RISA and its scholars control the vyakhya (i.e. hermeneutics, right to criticize, what is deemed important and interesting, etc.) , manage the adhikara (i.e. appoint those in charge of gate-keeping the academic channels), and sometimes even field the persons who represent the Hindus. Any in-bred, pedigree-based, closed system is likely to slip into stagnation. When opposed by truly independent outsiders (i.e. those who do not seek visas, PhDs, jobs, tenure, etc.), some RISA members have resorted to intimidating name-calling to affect censorship. Sometimes, this attack on the messenger deflects from the message. The trial of Sri Ramakrishna in absentia, with no defense side allowed, is an example of what happens under such asymmetries of power.

But Hindus have a long standing tradition of making fun of their gods, since they do not fear blasphemy. Hindus can summon a god, argue and make fun of him, even scold him with impunity—in a process called 'nindastuti'. Being prone to questioning and challenging gods, they do not hesitate to challenge human icons either. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find Hindus using satire, parody and caricatures in what outsiders regard as 'attacks' on those scholars who proclaim god-like status. Nicholas Gier used "Titanism" to describe Hindu gurus who are larger than life and assume unquestionable authority. But in the Indian mind, the West has a Titanic presence. There are Scholar Titans dominating Hinduism Studies, who have usurped the ultimate authority that traditionally belonged to the Vedas—a sort of colonialism.

Hindus feel disenfranchised and outcast in the academic study of their religion, perhaps because of a smaller presence of the practitioner-scholar than in the case of Buddhism, for instance. Hence, they resort to this traditional method of dealing with arrogance from the gods. Until two years ago, there was one-directional name-calling, only by the scholars. But then Hindus made several internet forums which scholars could not control, and these have become vehicles to mobilize and develop counter name-calling back to scholars. Frankly, this is unproductive, and the time has come to move beyond rudeness and name-calling in either direction.

Concluding Remarks:

While I have focused on the 'problems' here, let me close by saying that many RISA scholars have been very sympathetic, have devoted their lives to positive and fair scholarship, and have had the courage to step out of the orthodoxy of scholarship. Learning from the way blacks and women achieved symmetry, we need non-Hindus in RISA to stand up to blatant asymmetry before real progress is made. Hopefully, we can together evolve a better and more liberal understanding of Hinduism. The mere fact that this panel was held is a great step. Thank you for inviting me.


1. For instance: (i) I have criticized the introduction of astrology as a 'science' into the academic curriculum, and the notion that there is a 'Vedic Science'. (I have argued that Newton's Laws of Gravitation are not 'English Laws' or 'Christian Science'). (ii) I have expressed concern that the Aryan theory controversy is overdone in its significance, at the expense of more serious issues. (iii) I do not subscribe to the literalist interpretation of the Puranas—neither to claim hi-tech accomplishments (that the Hindutva believe), and nor to essentialize the verses suggesting social abuse (that westerners like to rub in). (iv) I have written about the general intellectual shallowness in Hindutva scholarship, at least in its current stage. (v) I am against the demolishment of mosques, even when there is compelling evidence (including from Muslim sources) of some of these having being built by destroying Hindu temples. [Return to text]

2. Karen Brown, the anthropologist of religion, speaking at the World Conference on "Gender and Orality"—May 2001, Claremont CA, proposed the following as the credo for western anthropologists: "The people and cultures that we Westerners study deserve our respect, reciprocity, and responsibility." [Return to text]

3. Examples of terms deserving better treatment include: murti, deva, varna, lingam, tantra, agni, sati, atman, etc. [Return to text]

4. See for example, J. J. Clark's book, Oriental Enlightenment. [Return to text]

5. These elites are not anchored in the tradition. Western scholars are often shocked to learn: (i) Indian scholars of the humanities (especially history and sociology), who claim to study Indian civilization in the eye's of the western academy, seldom have any education in Sanskrit or the Indian Classics; (ii) Sanskrit and Indian Classics were abolished in post-Independence India in the name of 'secularism' and to promote 'modernity' by eradicating 'intellectual backwardness', whereas in the west it would be unimaginable to be an expert in the western humanities without having a grounding in Greek Classics. To get a good education in Sanskrit, Indology, or Religious Studies, one must go to a university in the west as India's own education system abolished these fields. [Return to text]

6. As one example only, those adopting a literalist interpretation of Indian texts are often deemed as fanatics, nationalists, and fundamentalists. But in Bible Studies, literalist interpretations are a well-respected hermeneutical approach. George Gallup's book of surveys of Americans' religious beliefs says that over 50% of all Americans believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Yet, we don't denounce the majority of Americans as fundamentalist-fanatics. In the case of Islam, the Koran is viewed as the literal history and not metaphorically by the mainstream. Personally, I prefer the metaphorical interpretation of all religious texts, but feel that literalist interpretations are a person's right without facing abuses. [Return to text]