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Academic Distortions of Hinduism

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  • drfmrls
    Book Counters Academic Distortions of Hinduism in America By Francis C. Assisi URL of this page: http://www.indolink.com/displayArticleS.php? id=071507063046
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 2, 2007
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      Book Counters Academic Distortions of Hinduism in America

      By Francis C. Assisi

      URL of this page: http://www.indolink.com/displayArticleS.php?

      Americans have been engaged in Hindu-bashing for more than a hundred
      years. (I have dwelt on this aspect previously:
      http://www.modelminority.com/article1017.html). And it's not just
      writers like Katherine Mayo or films like `Indiana Jones and the
      Temple of Doom;' the web too has a surfeit of anti-Hindu propaganda.

      In recent years Indian Americans have been concerned about the
      stereotypes about India and Hinduism that are taught as fact in
      American classrooms. They know it will negatively impact students of
      Indian or South Asian origin who are struggling to work out their
      identity in a multicultural, predominately Anglo-Christian

      Moreover, some academicians too are engaged in Hindu-bashing. For
      instance, scholars have disparaged the Bhagavad Gita as "a dishonest
      book"; declared Ganesha's trunk a "limp phallus"; classified Devi as
      the "mother with a penis" and Shiva as "a notorious womanizer" who
      incites violence in India; pronounced Sri Ramakrishna a pedophile who
      sexually molested the young Swami Vivekananda; condemned Indian
      mothers as being less loving of their children than white women; and
      interpreted the bindi as a drop of menstrual fluid and the "ha" in
      sacred mantras as a woman's sound during orgasm.

      This depiction of Hinduism in a manner perceived as provocatively
      demeaning by the Hindus themselves is the subject of a recent
      book: `Invading the Sacred- An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in
      America.' It is a serious and significant response to the challenge
      posed by Hinduphobia in America. And it now calls upon all fair
      minded Americans and Hindus to read the book, and take steps to bring
      the vilification of India and of Hinduism to an end.

      The first person within the Indian-American community to bring
      Hinduphobia, or distortions and negative portrayals of the Hindu
      religion out into the open was Rajiv Malhotra. Since at least 2002,
      his single minded campaigning, his scholarly criticisms, and his
      courageous stance has brought the issue into focus – thanks to the
      world-wide-web. In many of these articles, Malhotra argues that
      misinterpretations of Indian culture, especially philosophy and
      religion have created a Hinduism for American society that is very
      different from the religious philosophy as practiced by its

      The core complaint that Malhotra asserts is that the current
      education system and media in the USA and India are deeply and
      unconsciously Eurocentric – a system that is breeding the next
      generation of Eurocentric Americans, and that many Indians have
      adopted this Eurocentric trend also. Malhotra, who studied physics at
      India's St. Stephens College and computer science at Syracuse
      University, now works full time at the Infinity Foundation, a
      nonprofit he founded in 1995 to "upgrade the quality of understanding
      of Indian civilization in the American media and educational system,
      as well as among the English language educated Indian elite."

      In September 2002, Malhotra wrote an article criticizing the
      representation of Hindu religion in the North American discipline of
      Religious Studies on Sulekha.com, a web portal popular among the
      Indian diaspora. The article, named "Wendy's Child Syndrome,"
      identified a number of American scholars in Religious Studies working
      on Hinduism, arguing against their suitability to write or teach
      about Hindu religion, instigating debate within the academe.
      Malhotra's summaries of the concerned writings and his evaluations of
      the scholars involved, caused an indignant uproar on the Internet
      amongst Hindus, primarily Indian Hindus, all over the world and
      particularly in North America. In follow-up columns, Malhotra
      continued with his argument about the necessity of the Indian
      diaspora to wake up to such misrepresentations. These portrayals, he
      asserts, are responsible for the negative image of Indians and
      Hindus, leading to their racist treatment in American society. His
      articles garnered some of the highest number of readers and drew the
      largest number of comments.

      Malhotra condemned "the eroticisation of Hinduism by Wendy Doniger,
      who is undoubtedly the most powerful person in academic Hinduism
      Studies today," and "her large cult of students, who glorify her in
      exchange for her mentorship." He noted that religious studies—a field
      that teaches about a religion without preaching its beliefs—is rare
      in India, making academic discussions of Hinduism a mostly Western
      conversation. "Under Western control," he argued, "Hinduism studies
      has produced ridiculous caricatures that could easily be turned into
      a Bollywood movie or a TV serial."

      Indeed, Malhotra was the first to voice his concerns regarding the
      misrepresentation of Hinduism in America, when he noted:

      • Hindu kids and even adults in America are apologetic about their
      religion, generally preferring to distance themselves from it and
      keep quiet about it. • Educational material used to teach about
      Hinduism focuses on caste, idol worship, lack of social values among
      Hindus, and other negative portrayals. • A major academic web site
      examines the Bhagavad Gita in negative terms of Arjuna killing his
      relatives because of his Hindu outlook. • Teaching grants to train
      secondary school teachers on religious pluralism have been used to
      develop material that portrays Rama as 'oppressing' women and lower
      castes. • There is minimal coverage given to the positive
      contributions by India's civilization to mathematics, science,
      medicine, metallurgy, linguistics, logic, and other 'rational' areas;
      and when pointed out, such avoidance is sometimes defended. • Most of
      the educational material on Indic religions is written very
      authoritatively by Americans who have advanced degrees in Sanskrit
      and/or Religious Studies, who have spent years researching in India,
      and would easily impress anyone with their scriptural knowledge about
      India. • Very few Indians have gone for academic careers in Religion
      or Philosophy, and those in such careers must be very cautious not to
      step out of line in complaining about the above matters.

      V. V. Raman, Emeritus Professor Rochester Institute of Technology
      says: "Mr. Malhotra is a serious and well-grounded scholar. He did
      not come to this field via the standard academic route, but his
      writings reflect more erudition and a greater grasp of important
      issues than many Ph.D.'s I know. …Because of his firm stand and
      sometimes angry style, he has angered the Western academic
      establishment on Indology, and alienated a great many, including some
      Hindu scholars…But he has also shaken many to look deeper into the
      assumptions and unrecognized prejudices which shape their
      interpretations. And he has served as a bold and well-informed voice
      for many Hindus in the West as well as in India who have often felt
      hurt and insulted by some of the psychoanalytic interpretations of
      their culture and divinities. Personally, I don't agree with Mr.
      Malhotra's style and mode, and I don't always resonate with his
      demarcation lines between the East and the West, but I have great
      respect for his scholarship, much sympathy for the core of his
      theses, and I applaud his long-range goal. One more thing: To my
      knowledge, he is not affiliated with any Hindu `fundamentalist'

      Anant Rambachan, Professor of Religion, Saint Olaf College in
      Minnesota writes: "Rajiv Malhotra is a prominent and insistent voice
      questioning and inviting dialogue with the scholarly community, on
      the content and methodology of studying and teaching Hinduism at
      institutions of higher education in North America. This initial
      collection offers a salient summary of his critique and concerns, and
      is a valuable historical resource for those who want to understand
      better this debate, and those who wish to become participants in the
      conversation that he has passionately initiated and sustained.
      Scholars should welcome a critical voice from the community that is
      the focus of their study, for a mutually enriching dialogue."

      In his preface to the book, Arvind Sharma, Professor of Religion at
      McGill University, writes: `The book singes with the sparks that flew
      as the psychoanalytic approach to the study of religion became the
      lightning rod of the grievances of the Hindu Americans against a
      cross-section of the academic community in North America devoted to
      the study of Hinduism. It goes on to document the way these
      grievances were articulated and ventilated, as well as the response
      from the world of the Western academia and, to a certain extent, from
      the media, as the issue came to a head. Most importantly, the book is
      a pointer to the fact that the Hindu community in North America has
      now reached the demographic critical mass, when its reactions can no
      longer be disregarded.'
      The book, edited by Krishnan Ramaswamy, Aditi Banerjee, and Antonio
      T. de Nicolas, probes the invisible networks behind biased approaches
      to Hinduism and the questionable scholarship of the American experts
      on Hinduism. Furthermore it goes on to narrate the Indian Diaspora's
      recent challenges to such scholarship, and documents how those who
      dared to speak up - including academic scholars critical of such
      scholarship - have been branded as "dangerous".

      The authors of this study say that today Hinduism is under siege by
      forces who have found their playing fields in a section of the
      American Academy of Religion and the Departments of South Asia
      Studies. Their game plan is to denigrate Hinduism by focusing
      narrowly on its social ills, misinterpreting its texts and in the
      process overlooking the substantial content of Hinduism, its
      unequalled intellectual wealth, the fact that India has, by virtue of
      Hinduism and Sanskrit, `a place in the history of the human mind' as
      Max Mueller once noted.

      Kapil Kapur, Former Chair of Department of English, Jawaharlal Nehru
      University, opines: "The intellectuals featured in this book, with
      their bold decision to take on this scholarship, have entered into a
      serious dialogue about motives, methodology and substance and, using
      their own tools, have reversed the gaze back on to the scholarly
      establishment to their understandable discomfort. This book is
      important because it records the background, the issues and the
      arguments in this debate, and the debate is not over. This has been a
      historic intervention. The record of this enterprise is a lesson for
      a large number of young Hindus who must learn to combat adverse
      western scholarship by using the weapons of the enemy."

      Bal Ram Singh, Director, Center for Indic Studies, University of
      Massachusetts, Dartmouth, points out: "The Indian diaspora of over 20
      million around the world faces the acute problem that much of its
      civilizational portrayal has been controlled by outsiders for many
      centuries. However, a sharp increase in the prominence of Indians in
      the global scene has forced a showdown between the old guard's
      established ideas and the young, vibrant community. "Invading the
      Sacred" is a first serious, albeit provocative, effort to challenge
      the parochial characterization of Hindus by western and/or
      westernized scholars. The book is path-breaking and takes to task
      those scholars who have been falsely stereotyping Indian culture, and
      shows the importance of challenging such biases. It will hopefully
      lead to more balanced and respectful discourse, debate, and
      discussion on many issues facing humanity as a whole, for which Indic
      civilization is an important resource."

      To the question as to why Indian scholars acquiesce to and even
      imitate mistakes committed by Euro-American Indologists, in spite of
      the fact that they could and should know better, one academic says it
      is partly due to India's colonization and a widespread overestimation
      of western culture and the blind belief that anything of western or
      European origin cannot but be superior to the corresponding element
      of Indic culture. The resulting "inferiority complex" has had a
      shattering and traumatic effect upon Indic scholarship and academic
      output. Unfortunately, this trend continues even in post-independent
      India and among Indians living in the diaspora today, the authors of
      Invading the Sacred point out.

      The irony is that this denigration of Hinduism is happening at a time
      when the widespread acceptance of many elements of Sanatana Dharma
      seems to point to a "Hinduization" of the American cultural milieu.

      Just consider this. In 2005, roughly 18 million Americans are
      practicing Yoga. In multiple polls of American religious beliefs and
      attitudes, up to 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation. Tens of
      millions of Americans meditate. Over 20 million are vegetarian.
      Almost half the population has turned to alternative health systems,
      such as Ayurveda, herbal medicine and massage.

      What may be happening, at least according to one American Hindu Frank
      Morales, is that Americans are interested in Yoga asanas, but are not
      as interested in become self-realized Yogis. They are interested in
      meditation for its calming effects, but not necessarily as a means to
      achieve samadhi. Americans are keen to incorporate Ayurvedic
      medicine - but only as a complementary or alternative system - mostly
      for controlling obesity or for the rejuvenative aspect of
      Panchakarma. They are primarily interested in the many goodies that
      Hinduism has to offer, but without taking the next logical step of
      becoming Hindus, or in many cases without even acknowledging the
      purely Hindu origins of the many practices that they have derived so
      much benefit from.

      Morales says that while elements of Hinduism such as Yoga, ayurveda
      and meditation become more popular in America, Hinduism itself is in
      danger of being assimilated into the greater cultural milieu, just
      another ingredient – albeit a nicely spicy one – of the great
      American melting-pot. "We face the very real possibility of authentic
      Sanatana Dharma becoming co-opted into the greater American cultural
      matrix as nothing more than a menagerie of disparate elements used to
      market New Age spirituality" writes Morales in an essay
      entitled `Does Hinduism Have a Future in America?'

      As a practicing Hindu, Morales is concerned about the
      academic/media/education/government matrix in America that fosters
      anti-Hindu stereotypes. "Rather than standing up and fighting against
      such anti-Hindu portrayals, the Hindu community has been so slow to
      respond to these attacks in the past that many of the anti-Hindu
      bigots in academia feel they have a free reign to propagate any lies
      about Sanatana Dharma they wish. They also know that if the Hindu
      community ever even responds at all, it is usually too little, too
      late, and in a purely reactionary manner. We need to counter any and
      all attacks against Sanatana Dharma immediately, forcefully and

      This book is the first attempt at talking back to the academicians
      and is a must read for all people of Indian origin, especially Hindu
      Americans. As one perceptive observer noted: "in these jehadi times,
      when Islamists run around the globe killing innocent people to prove
      that their Prophet and their book are the best, now and forever, the
      Hindu idea becomes even more relevant - What grander idea of faith
      can there be than that everyone is entitled to their own truth?"

      The contributors to the book, which is published by Rupa, are Aditi
      Banerjee, Antonio T. de Nicolas, Alan Roland, Arvind Sharma, S.N.
      Balagangadhara, Pandita Indrani Rampersad, Kalavai Venkat, Krishnan
      Ramaswamy, Vishal Agarwal, Ramesh N. Rao, Sankrant Sanu, Yuvraj
      Krishan, Yvette C. Rosser.

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