Overview - Western Indology

On the Gore and Glory of Western Indology

V. V. Raman
Rochester Institute of Technology

The field of inquiry and commentary which has come to be known as Indology had its origins, like Sinology, Egyptology, and other such disciplines, in the exploratory, intrusive, and scholarly interests of European colonialism, missionary zeal, and Enlightenment. Many centuries earlier, Islamic expansionism had shown a similar enthusiasm for understanding, interpreting, translating, and critiquing the literature, philosophy, and traditions of other peoples.

Aside from genuine intellectual curiosity, there were at least two other motivations for the Western pursuit of Indology. One was the need to have a clear understanding of the history and culture of the people the colonialists wanted to (had to) govern. The other was to use that knowledge to persuade Hindus that theirs was a religion which, with all its inner light, needed to be replaced by a better religion, namely, Christianity. This is why not only independent scholars, but also government-affiliated thinkers and missionaries took interest in Indology.

For almost two centuries, as a result of the efforts of Western scholars, with ever increasing collaboration with Hindu academics and religious thinkers, Indology has been flourishing and evolving. Thanks to the untiring dedication of such people, much of ancient Hindu history has been reconstructed. Thanks to a number of Western archaeologists the even more ancient Indic civilizations were unearthed. The rich treasures of Sanskrit as well as Tamil and other vernacular literatures have been translated, commented upon, and propagated to the world by the exertions of Western scholars and linguists. Herein lies the glory of Western Indological scholarship.

However, the colonizing and Christianizing motivations of early Indologists are, in retrospect, offensive to Neo-Hindus today. More regrettably, in the view of some, many Indian minds have been transformed to the Western mode of thinking and analyzing historical and spiritual matters. This is drastically different from traditional modes. As a result, a deep chasm has arisen not only between English-educated Indian scholars who think like their Western colleagues and their non-English speaking compatriots whose approach to religion and tradition are untouched by modern ways, but also between an awakened body of modern Indians who have recognized the self-serving Euro-centric interpretations, unintentional mis-portrayals, and intentional distortions of India's rich culture, ancient traditions, and complex religions. All this is the gore of Western Indological scholarship.

The happy collaboration between Western and Indian scholars has thus been subject to some serious assaults. A number of post-modern Hindu thinkers have been seeing in much of Indology, past and present, many culture-insensitive and racially motivated factors with more hidden agenda than had been surmised thus far. A new movement has already taken its initial steps whose goal is to expose, condemn, and keep away what is considered to be cold-blooded scholarship with a hidden-agenda with little reverence or sensitivity for the living religion that is Hinduism. In this new vision, which incidentally, has a number of Western scholars among its protagonists, a great many supposedly sympathetic Indologists are, in fact, wolves in sheep's skin.

We live in an age of diversity and pluralism which call for appreciation of and respect for all cultures of the human family. And it also sets lines which one is not supposed to cross with disrespectful pronouncements on the cultures of other peoples. What this means is that (non-Hindu) Western scholars need to be more sensitive in their writings and interpretations on the Hindu world, they should strive to understand at a deeper level how practicing Hindus may feel upon reading their writings.

In this context, it is good to remember that similar circumstances arose (and are still present) within the matrix of Western culture which is, as of now, largely Judeo-Christian. Many scholars in the West have written (and continue to write) cold-bloodedly, unsympathetically, critically, even disrespectfully and disparagingly, on aspects of Christianity and Judaism, incurring similar displeasure and protests.

The opponents to such legitimate protests point out that putting restrictions on the freedom to express one's thoughts and views on any subject is contrary to one of the tenets of enlightened discourse.

Be that as it may, as a result of all that is happening in the context of these not-always calm debates, one of two things will most probably come to pass. If the acrimony continues with increasing intensity, it is possible that in the decades to come, interest in Indology will gradually diminish in the West. This would be one unfortunate outcome. Or again, after all the historical anger and missionary zeal calm down, after India asserts herself as an equal partner with the West in the fields of science, technology, as also in military and economic strength, that is to say, after the West ceases to be hegemonic in the global arena, then perhaps Indian Indologists will again join hands again with their Western colleagues to explore and enrich further the fruitful and fascinating field of Indic culture and civilization.

I hope and pray for the the latter to come about. As of now it appears as if many Neo-Hindus will be quite happy either way.