Engagement - Diaspora Hindus

Defamation and Diaspora Hindus:
Notes on Internet Discussions

Vasudha Narayanan
University of Florida

Should there be a lakshman rekha, a line self-imposed or otherwise, that scholars should not cross? If so, who should draw the line and who should move it?

My task today is to talk about "defamation" on the internet. There is some ambiguity attached to the term in the context of today's discussion: we deal with the alleged defamation of Hinduism on the one hand, and defamation of scholars on list serves and web pages on the other. I will spend most of my time today outlining a list of issues that concern some Hindus about list serves where most of the discussants are non-Hindu. I will focus primarily on RISA-L and, to a lesser extent, on Indology. In this enterprise, I would like to acknowledge the help of a former Indian/Hindu student from the University of Florida who took some advanced level reading courses on Vedanta, specifically the Sri Vaishnava tradition, with me. He would like to be identified as "a recent resident in the US, an engineer by profession but very much interested in scholarly Hindu studies." He sent me a long document with specific problematic issues in RISA-L, and it seemed to reaffirm the tenor of many internet discussions criticizing western scholarship. However, he does say that this critical report does not mean that he holds the "RISA scholars in contempt per se;" and says that this is only an anthology on what he considers to be the "bad aspects."

Many moons ago, when western scholars studied and wrote about Hinduism, Hindus had little control over what was said and how information was interpreted and disseminated. The audience for the articles and books was also Euro-American scholars. Obviously that has changed now—we all know that there are Indo-American, Hindu scholars in the academy, and second generation Hindus in our classrooms. More important to our discussion today, there are many Hindus who are reading and listening in on academic discussions. While in the past, there had been groups of Hindus rather bemused and occasionally even flattered at the attention that American or European scholars seemed to lavish on their texts and rituals, now there are some in the United States who are wary and angered at the way in which they perceive Hinduism is being portrayed in classrooms and more particularly at the AAR. It is, of course, hard to get numbers in this quest and I certainly do not want to generalize about how "Hindus" feel about so called "western" scholarship. Just speaking from my anecdotal experience, most Hindus are not aware of a great deal of "western" scholarship and have not made an attempt to know more about it.

I also do not mean to suggest that this is an intellectual battle of Hindus against non-Hindu Euro-American scholars; rather, what I would like to underline is that there are many assumptions not shared between the groups. There are many Hindu scholars in many disciplines—humanities and some behavioral sciences—who are also being criticized and condemned by a few Hindus. Rather than draw a broad picture, I will simply bring up some of the criticism against RISA and RISA-L in particular. It is obvious that I am a member of RISA, the AAR, and a Hindu. I thus participate in all these universes and have received e-mails from several individuals who have perceived attacks. Thus, I have been involved in many of these conversations. My comments today are largely based on e-mails, both personal and to list serves, and not on any scientific or methodical sampling of particular web pages.

We all know that internet discussions and list serves have created several interest groups. With web pages for most of the major gurus, sampradayas, and members of several communities, information and misinformation has never been so regularly available. Many groups for various sampradayas have list serves set up by Hindu devotees with very pious, interesting, and scholarly dissemination of information. For example, in just the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya alone, there is not just one generic discussion list, but a number of web pages and list serves for "in house" devotees of different matha-s and teachers (acharya) of the Vatakalai and Tenkalai subsects. And of course, there are discussion groups for the Advaita and Dvaita sampradaya-s and particular gurus like Ammachi. There are many learned discussions in these, but the driving energy behind their creation is devotion or adherence to a particular teacher or tradition. There are a whole range of list serves, of course, between these devotional list serves and those devoted to the academic study of religion, like RISA-L.

Indology was one of these "in between" ones which had its share of those who have had professional training in the subject and many who did not. The list included many educated professionals, students of math, engineering, and allied fields. RISA-L, on the other hand, has been restricted to those who are in the academic study of religion and most, but not all subscribers are members of the AAR.

It was in subscriber lists like Indology that I first encountered the postings of Indian professionals who had more than a passing interest in the subject. Some were well versed in music, others knew Sanskrit, some knew about Indian science and so on. What many of them shared was a tremendous knowledge of various parts of Indian culture and a professional education in non-Indological subjects. What many people who subscribed to the list seemed to haveÐand this is from all sectors, not just Indians or academics, was an abundance of time to answer questions and move quickly on to ideological matters. I learned a lot in this forum for a while on Tamil culture, the Indus valley debate, beef eating in the Vedas, but a lot more about people's prejudices about each other.

RISA-L, on the other hand, has been relatively cloistered. Most subscribers are teachers or graduate students of religion. Yet, this group has also been criticized in the internet. The group as a whole has been castigated in other list serves, and individual members have been taken to task in web pages. There have also been very strong, very hurtful attacks against individual scholars.

While there have been many topics that have merited attention from Hindus on non-Hindu treatment of Hinduism, two are particularly noteworthy—the Aryan migration debate and Kripal's Kali's Child. The Aryan migration and indigenous Aryan debate has been extraordinarily heated in the Indology network and relatively mild in RISA-L. There is now a very large body of literature on Kali's Child including many discussions which erupt regularly on RISA-L. There are several other areas of concern as well; some voiced in internet sites, others in private email correspondence. I will briefly enumerate some areas which are of concern to the Hindus who follow these discussion. My comments here are very brief and can be discussed at length later.

In regard to the question of Hinduism being studied and represented by non-Hindus, at least two issues are explicit—the question of representation and the participation of Hindus. Yet there is a third issue as well, but this one is unstated: it is probable that the lament is not just about the non-participation of Hindus, but specifically, about the lack of participation on the part of Hindus whose ethnic origins are in India. Checking out the field, it is obvious that there are few students of Indian origin who really major in religious studies in America. Putting on a third hat here—not just as a Hindu and a RISA member but specifically speaking as a Hindu parent—I can say that most Indian parents I know want their children to be doctors or accountants. Even my former student, who articulated many of these problems discussed on the internet, says that the teachers in the humanities in academia are paid too little! The culture of the younger generation taking up humanities, fine arts and performing arts for a living (or lack thereof, which seems to be the moot point) is simply not prevalent at this point among Indian immigrants in this country. Until we have more of the younger generation Hindus in academics, I don't know what can be done.

My former student sent me his views on why the younger generation is turned off from Indian studies in America: he believes that one finds there some hostile, biased representations by American professors—"an infatuation with 'Hindu Fascism.'" He perceives American professors to like select "Marxists, liberals, and other political commentators" and names several of them.

While these are similar to the thoughts expressed by some factions in India, as well as about Indian academia's infatuation with "Marxist" historians in general, most Hindu students I know are able to sift through different kinds of materials and critique them with some sophistication. One of the things we do try to teach in our classes is to understand the agendas behind the texts, to see where the writer is coming from. It is true that many undergraduates take a while to figure out where they can get alternative opinions. There is a slow influx of Hindu students in our classes and it is to be hoped that eventually there can be many fruitful discussions with people of many backgrounds, including many with a Hindu heritage, who participate in the learning process.

Most scholars in RISA-L don't think of themselves as representing Hinduism—they are in AAR meetings and in RISA-L for exchange of ideas, research ideas. The study of religion for many of them is an academic discipline. It is very important to keep this in mind; this is an academic forum, a research forum, and should be seen in such a context.

Many other criticisms are directed against RISA-L. There is a perception that the scholars discuss the "faults" and "excesses" of Hindu nationalism and do not speak about issues where Hindus are victims. (This, is the politics of news making and reporting; scholarship seems to feed off the media and sometimes into it). There is also a perception that Euro-American scholars tend to give patronizing answers to Hindus who post on list serves like Indology. Connected with this is the perception that some "western liberals" jump all over those who try to voice their opinions and "restore balance" to e-mail discussions. Some Hindu critics think that "poverty" and "lack of women's rights" and other social ills are portrayed by "western" scholars as Hindu problems and that stereotyping is still rampant. A few Hindus in this country also have very specific ideas of what should be taught in classes: Vedanta, certain kinds of philosophy, and yoga. There is a certain aversion to the portrayal of ethnographic materials, including phenomena like "possession," the occasional animal sacrifices found in some communities, and so on, because they believe that many high school students and undergraduates do not have the background to put it all in perspective. Many religion scholars have only recently moved from purely textual approaches to one which integrates ethnography with texts; some Hindus are uncomfortable with this.

One should not think that all textual approaches are seen as good. Hindus in this country point to errors in translations and what they see as strained interpretations of texts. But perhaps the most sensitive issue is that of method. Some methods, especially psychoanalytic when applied to revered figures like Ramakrishna are considered at best, insensitive, and at worst, extraordinarily insulting to the Hindu tradition.

A word here about the last issue, which has been treated at length in other forums. One point that the Hindu critics make is that psychoanalytic approaches and also the exoticization of the religion (which in the Hindu case results in focusing on sati, dowry, etc.) are simply not done in the study of Islam in the United States. Thus, they say, there is no psychoanalytic approach used to interpret the prophet Muhammad, there are no AAR panels on polygamy in Islam, and so on. They point out that there are many "sensitive" issues in Islam which Ameican scholars do not touch—thus, we do not seem to have panels on, say, cultural and religious factors in Islam which promote violence at certain times. The last issue is one that we can, perhaps, discuss in this forum today. One may ask: is there a perceptible difference in the kind of topics and kinds of methods used in the academic study of Islam in the last few years and those used in the study of Hindu traditions? Many scholars of Islam I know are constantly aware of the "misportrayals" (as they call it) of Islam by the media and are constantly trying to restore a balance. The criticism, then, is that RISA scholars feel no such compunction when it comes to the study of Hinduism and that, therefore, they hold double standards.

A point that many Hindu critics make is that Hinduism is a minority religion in this country and that specialist work—psychoanalytic and otherwise—done in RISA and similar forums "trickles" down and that Hindu students in this country are uncomfortable with it. Younger students without any knowledge of Hinduism get a wrong "feel" for the traidition when the focus is on sati, sexuality, and social discrimination. In this way Hindu students feel ridiculed and marginalized. On the other hand, there are some Hindus who seem to welcome such open inquiries; they point out that in India, where they are in the majority, very little is being done to promote such critical inquiries and that freedom of thought and expression should not be sacrificed in academia.

Finally, before I leave all this open to discussion, let me make a few quick remarks. I think there are several misunderstandings and perceptions about the academic study of religion, and we are just beginning to see in relation to Hinduism the kinds of issues that surfaced many decades ago between the rigorous academic study of religion, specifically Christianity, and the faith communities. Those lines, divides, and a few bridges have long been accepted in the American academic world. Some Hindus—like those Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, or Jews who are not trained in the professional study of religion and the critical theories that have emerged in the last hundred years—think of academic studies as encroaching on matters of faith. When this is augmented by what they perceive as poor language preparation or politically motivated interpretation, the temperature level of the discussion begins to rise.

Scholars in the field, both Hindu and non-Hindu of the field, believe that discussions will be more fruitful if the others understand that Religion, like History and other subjects in the humanities, is a highly evolved field with rigorous training—one needs to know not just the texts, but the social and political contexts, gender, class, age and other hierarchies in those contexts, and so on. A number of techniques are to be deployed in the understanding of these materials. Further, work presented at the AAR, RISA and other forums are simply a fleeting snapshot of work in progress and not a comprehensive view of Hinduism. The audience here is comprised of research scholars; it is not meant to be a substitute for the chamber of commerce's introduction to India done for a business traveller. Many of my colleagues in RISA would agree that what they teach in classrooms, especially in introductory classes, is different in texture from the kinds of issues they discuss in research forums and that they try to be sensitive to the students needs.

The conversations are just beginning in the study of the Hindu traditions and there are many parties to this: Hindu scholars from India and other parts of the world who are professionally trained in the study of religion; Indian-Hindu professionals who are experts in other fields but who nevertheless have a lot invested in the portrayals of Hinduism that emerge from academia; traditional scholars; political bystanders; and other actors.

And so, we ask, what we can do now? We may ignore the critics completely and go on with our business; or we can come back to our original question and ask: should scholars draw certain lines for themselves, the lakshman rekha of Hindu thought, to accommodate the sensitivities of a minority and/or faith community? The lines would be shaded in different ways in teaching and research, changing with increased knowledge, increased understanding, and sophistication on all sides. It is this issue that we can discuss now, and ask if we need such a line in academic teaching and research. If so, who draws it and where?