Overview - Hindu Studies

Reflections on Hindu Studies vis-á-vis Hindu Practice

Swami Tyagananda
The Vedanta Society, Boston

Two years ago, after I was invited to join the United Ministry at Harvard as the Hindu chaplain, I was curious to know how the chaplains working on the campus were connected with Harvard's Divinity School. When I asked a minister about it, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "We don't have too much connection with them really. They study religion whereas we are practitioners." This answer surprised me. I had naively assumed that since both the chaplains and the Divinity School were involved with religion, they would naturally share common interests and goals.

Later when I got to know more people on the campus—at Harvard as well as in other colleges in and around Boston—I got a clearer picture. I saw that there was indeed a wall separating religious studies from religious practice, but it was not uncrossable. Some scholars are practitioners and some practitioners are scholars. While there is often a tension between what ministers think and what ordinary practitioners believe—and this tension complicates the picture—we still must acknowledge that the scholar/practitioner divide is real and it merits discussion.

Although much of what I say will probably be applicable to religious study and practice in general, I shall use examples from Hinduism studies in the West and from the life of practicing Hindus, since that is the context of this dialogue.

Many factors are responsible for the split between the academy and the practicing community. One factor is the focus of the two groups. Those who study Hinduism in an academic setting want to know about Hinduism, and not all scholars want that knowledge to influence the direction of their lives. This is not to deny that many of those who do study Hinduism do so for religious reasons. On the other hand, practicing Hindus study their tradition too, but they do so with the clear intent of transforming their lives. This difference in focus leads to differing approaches to Hindu philosophy and religious personalities.

There are many on either side of our porous wall who suspect the value of what the other side does. Some in the Western academy see the "faith" of practicing Hindus as a blind, unquestioned acceptance of personalities and events. This is often due to predetermined academic or religious views held by some scholars. On their part, many Hindus see academic study as equally faith-driven: unquestioned faith in certain methods of research and total reliance on certain theories, often with little firsthand acquaintance with the living tradition.

Many scholars tend to believe that as "outsiders" they can be more objective and less conditioned by the environment in which the "insiders" thrive. On the other side of the fence is the belief that without being an "insider" one cannot have access to at least some aspects of the tradition—and without that access the study, however objective it may be, would still be inaccurate and incomplete. Much has already been written and said about the outsider/insider divide and how it affects the study and practice of religion.[1]

It is neither possible nor necessary for Hindu practitioners and Hinduism scholars to agree with each other on every issue. Disagreements are one thing and outrage is quite another. We need to explore the causes that provoke reactions stronger than healthy disagreements. I shall use an example from my own personal experience that, I feel, highlights many relevant points.

A year and a half ago I did some research on Jeffrey Kripal's book Kali's Child.[2] A provocative review of that book had appeared earlier—in 1997—in the Calcutta daily The Statesman and it had generated much heat among the practicing Hindus in Calcutta. They were outraged at the interpretation of Ramakrishna's life that was so radically different from their own and they were outraged even more when they heard some Western scholars characterize the book's treatment of Ramakrishna as "sympathetic." Many people—both in academia as well as from the Hindu community—were also outraged because those critics hadn't even read the book and yet they were denouncing it on the basis of a single review.

In this heated exchange, what went largely ignored was the voice of practicing Hindus who had read the book carefully, were familiar with the textual sources on Ramakrishna (most of which are in Bengali), and knew Bengali well enough to see that the problems in Kali's Child were more basic than mere interpretation. If interpretation is to be based on historical data, it is vital that the data is not manipulated. It is vital that the texts are translated honestly and accurately. It is vital that loaded language with its own subtext is not used to bolster a thesis, particularly when it distorts textual evidence. In my study of Kali's Child, I felt outraged too—but this was not the result of a blind, unquestioned faith in some dogma or belief or personality. It was simply because a book that was being lauded as "scholarly" had violated some of the basic norms observed in academic research and I realized that, without those violations, it would have been difficult to sustain a plausible thesis.[3]

To be sure, there have been other books on Ramakrishna with interpretations that are not palatable to practicing Hindus, but those books didn't attract the kind of reception that Kali's Child received because—I think—they made fair use of scholarly tools.

This firsthand experience was most educative for me to understand the dynamic that governs the relationship between the Western academy and the Hindu community. What irritates and sometimes outrages people on either side is arrogance: on one hand, the practicing community's insistent hope that whatever the scholars write be in harmony with what they believe, and on the other hand, the scholars' presumption that the community's faith is misplaced—their beliefs presumed irrational.

Another factor that dismays the Hindu community is what they perceive as misrepresentation of their faith. This can occur in several ways. One way is through selections or anthologies. It is true that any anthology will always have at least a few unhappy critics, because what is important to one may not be important to another. Take for instance Wendy Doniger's anthology of the Rig-veda.[4] Although she makes no claim to its being a representative collection, it is the only one at present which is handy and easily available in the West and hence widely read and studied. But those who are familiar with the contents of the complete Rig-veda find her selection quirky and offensive. That is why eyebrows are raised at such anthologies that merely reflect the taste of the compiler.[5]

What Hindus see as misrepresentation can occur even through the distortion of Hindu symbols and deconstruction of Hindu myths and personalities. In the West, people are used to similar critiques that deny or ignore some of their cherished religious beliefs; many thoughtful Westerners have learned to take such critiques for granted and are not disturbed by them. In India, however, religious studies as an academic pursuit outside of a visibly religious environment hasn't developed yet. Since this context doesn't exist there, many Hindus are offended when they feel that their tradition is being distorted.

It may be argued that academics have the right to freely express their views without being under any obligation to respect the sensibilities of a community. In that case, it must be recognized that neither is the community under any obligation to respect the sensibilities of the academic world. Freedom is a two-way street. If I want to express my freedom in my own way, I must be prepared to let others express their freedom in their own way. But if this leads to conflict and misunderstanding, then it may be helpful to examine whether there is something wrong with the way we are using our freedom. I am convinced that freedom is a value fundamental to human existence, and if it is expressed properly, it can lead to only greater understanding between divergent viewpoints.

Is it possible to cross the wall that separates Hinduism scholars and Hindu practitioners? My own response is yes, because I personally know many fine people who have crossed this wall several times. It's easy to mention names—and several of their books—but I won't do so because many of these scholars/practitioners are still amongst us and I don't want to embarrass them. But their lives and books have taught me what good scholarship means and how it cannot be separated from one's own life.

The distinction between intellectual understanding and spiritual experience—or "indirect" knowledge (parokshanubhuti) and "direct" knowledge (aparokshanubhuti)—is often stressed in the Hindu tradition. I feel that keeping this distinction in mind is useful for both scholars as well as practitioners. Intellectual understanding is important and often a necessary prerequisite to spiritual experience but it cannot replace spiritual experience. So both scholars and practitioners have something unique to contribute and they can be allies in a quest for greater knowledge and understanding.

In order for that to happen, the academy as well as the practicing community will have to shed their biases. It is counterproductive for either to perch itself on a high moral or intellectual ground and belittle the understanding of the other. The academic study of Hinduism will become richer if an effort is made to look at the subject from all perspectives, the insider's as well as the outsider's, without privileging one over the other. Hindu practice will become richer if it gets the benefit of newer ways of approach and newer insights from different viewpoints. No matter what, some differences will persist but bitterness need not. Disagreements are healthy and good so long as each side expresses them in a way that assures the other of its honesty of purpose.

Hopefully the wall dividing the academy and the practicing community will be torn down one day. We already have enough walls separating us from each other; we don't need more. September 11 is the most recent wake-up call. It's time to break down barriers and move together with understanding and mutual respect.


1. See JAAR (December 2000), vol. 68, issue 4 on articles and response on "Who Speaks for Hinduism?" [Return to text]

2. Jeffrey J. Kripal, Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 2nd ed (University of Chicago Press, 1998). [Return to text]

3. My review of the book can be accessed online at http://home.earthlink.net/~tyag/Home.htm. Prof. Kripal's responses to it appeared in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter 2001) and on the Divinity School's website at http://www.hds.harvard.edu/dpa/news/news/kripal.html. This resulted in counter-responses from Huston Smith, Somnath Bhattacharya and Swami Tyagananda, which were published as letters to the editor in the Spring 2001 edition of Harvard Divinity Bulletin. [Return to text]

4. Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, The Rig Veda (Penguin Books, 1981). [Return to text]

5. See ibid., 12. "This is certainly not a 'representative' anthology of the Rig-veda except in the sense that it is representative of my taste . . .." [Return to text]