John Stratton Hawley
Barnard College, Columbia University
In the course of the last five years, the form, content, history, and authority of Western academic scholarship about Hinduism have been vigorously questioned by practicing Hindus. Major landmarks along the way have been the international conference on "Revisiting Indus Saraswati Age and Ancient India" (Atlanta, 1996), the AAR panel on "Who Speaks for Hinduism?" (Orlando, 1998), and the renewed controversy about Jeffrey Kripal's Kali's Child in the light of Swami Tyagananda's rejoinder Kali's Child Revisited, or, Didn't Anyone Check the Documentation? (distributed at the AAR, 2000). Recently the institutional reality of the AAR itself has become a target of criticism.
This panel is an attempt to gather various strands of that debate, including the voices of some of the major participants to date. Inevitably, we find ourselves re-engaging controversies that are already familiar to many readers, but our principal hope is to step aside from the particulars of these debates and try to understand better the dynamics that underlie them. As our title suggests, we feature a sense of defamation, experienced in very different ways by different members of the panel. In addition to providing perspectives on this history of tension, hurt, and attack, several of our panelists draw attention to moments of concord and cooperation.
The text that follows is a written representation of what our panelists said in Denver. In most cases, it is the text from which panelists they actually read. Rajiv Malhotra's contribution is the exception to this rule, in that he spoke from notes; those notes form the basis for the text he presents here. There was also lively discussion. Alas, we cannot reproduce that discussion here, but we hope that by publishing the remarks on which it was based, we will allow it to continue.
In the course of the year 2001, several statements circulated in anticipation of our panel at the AAR. I would like to quote from three of these as a way of marking the terrain on which our discussion takes place. They provide us with three signposts—three points of orientation to keep in mind as wade into the conversation that follows. The first characterizes that conversation as a game. The second sees it as a sort of cold war. The third suggests what it might mean if it were to be seen from the perspective of a court of law.
Signpost 1: The Game
The first of these signposts was erected by one of our panelists, Rajiv Malhotra, on February 15, 2001, as a message to firstname.lastname@example.org:
"It's basically a game, in which one side controls the rules, appoints the referees, and even fields most of the players on behalf of the other side! It started with 18th and 19th century Indology, now re-labeled as Orientalism and found to be heavily catering to missionary, colonialist, and racist agendas. The tradition was established that Western scholars study 'primitive' cultures through informants, and there was no pretence of symmetry or honest conversation as peers. At that time, the political power asymmetry required that this had to be so.
"But the methodology remains largely unchanged today. Notice how 'Hindu reactions' must be represented by scholars who 'gather data' on the informants' reactions and not by bringing in Hindus to speak for themselves. The three examples of proposed panels I mention above [including the panel we reproduce here - ed.] suffer from this asymmetry."
Signpost 2: The Cold War
The second signpost was staked down by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, a member of the listserv Indictraditions. Anticipating the AAR's annual meeting in November, and with it the convening of a panel just such as ours, he wrote as follows to Indictraditions@yahoogroups.com on April 1, 2001:
"...So I take it to be the intensification of the cold war by the western academics against Hindu Dharma. Times are long past when the people professing the Hindu faith will accept meekly, in the spirit of tolerance, the arrogant, 'drain-inspector-like' behavior of practitioners of religions like Christianity and Islam. If indological scholarship cannot come to grips with a culture alien to them, they should stop casting aspersions against Hindu saints in the name of Freudian or other an irrelevant Savadhanapattra continuing the tirade against a phantom, the mischievous marxist phrase, 'hindutva'.
"Clearly, the western academics are crossing the limits of academic courtesy and are blatantly indulging in Hindu-bashing. I am sure they are not helping the cause of American Academy of Religion with the levels of intolerance and total absence of empathy displayed by the academics in refusing to see the point of view of the culture of a billion people. If the Academy believes that it is an extension of the ongoing efforts at harvesting souls in Bharata, and if the Academy persists with the organization of separate panel discussions on 'Hindu responses', the Academy should be told that the rules of academic engagement and debate should provide for equal time for the views opposing those of Kali's and Wendy's children being presented."
Signpost 3: The Legalities
A third signpost was provided by Joel Silverman, Esq., in an e-mail to one of our panelists, Laurie Patton, who had inquired about what the term defamation would mean in a legal setting. As Mr. Silverman is careful to say, the legal framework he sketches applies specifically to the state of Georgia, in the USA, and not necessarily elsewhere. Still, the Georgia law's discriminations between intent, truth, context of utterance, and the difference between the living and the dead seem worth our general consideration. I quote his private posting to Laurie Patton, as forwarded on November 5, 2001:
"Defamation in Georgia is defined in Georgia Law 16-11-40. A person commits the offense of criminal defamation when he or she communicates a falsehood with "intent to defame" (in other words, both a truthful statement and also the mistaken belief that you are speaking the truth are valid defenses.) The statement must be "published" (i.e., communicated to a third party.)
"Both living or dead persons can be defamed. To defame a dead person, the lie must "blacken the memory" of the deceased. To defame a living person, the lie must "expose them to hatred, contempt, or ridicule" and must "tend...to provoke a breach of the peace." There are certain privileged communications which will shield the communicator from this crime even if the other elements are satisfied.
"Crimes like Defamation and Libel are thorny because speech is given a wide umbrella of protection under the First Amendment. Accordingly, courts have ruled that certain otherwise defamatory statements can fall under exceptions such as parody, political criticism in the public interest about public figures, communication between spouses, etc."
Helpful as these signposts are for directing us to the turf on which our debates are staged, the settings they suggest—games, wars, and courtrooms—are only three of the landscapes relevant to our discussion. A fourth would have to be the inner terrain of hurt, that cavity into which each of us is apt to descend long after we've done our best to forgive the person or situation that caused the hurt. Our collective hope is that the thoughts we put forward here will not only illumine the sense of defamation felt on many sides, but help to diminish it—and perhaps even point beyond.