The study of Hinduism in the West is currently undergoing a metamorphosis. Second and third generation Hindu-Americans, who since the 1960’s were educated in American high schools, have been personally impacted by a well-entrenched paradox. Even though Hinduism is:
the world’s third most practiced religion… one of the world’s oldest continuous traditions… it is perhaps the least understood, especially in the Western world.
This quote, from the webpage of the Harvard’s Hindu Students Association, reveals a persistent problem in the presentation of Hinduism in the West.
Yoga, for example, is based on Indic traditions and Hatha Yoga is offered in most neighborhood gyms and YWCAs – popular with modern Americans who reap great benefit from a system that is grounded in a scientific understanding of anatomy and physiology. However, even though Yoga is scientifically oriented and is an inherent part of Hinduism — based on Hindu texts, treatises, and traditions, ironically in textbooks used in American classrooms, Hinduism is generally portrayed as superstitious and unscientific- apparently polytheistic and comparatively primitive. Hinduism’s profound scientific, psychological, and philosophical premises are sidelined in the academic presentation, which stresses a paganistic hedonistic Hinduism. There is a disconnect between on one hand, the experience of a personal belief in Hindu Dharma – practiced through various forms of Yoga, in complete contrast, on the other hand, to the disempowering theoretical constructs that have been erected by Indologists through the centuries.
This tendency towards denigration is based on ingrained academic traditions. For centuries there has been a tendency in Western theoretical constructs of Hinduism to trivialize or ignore the psychological, philosophical, and scientific relevance inherent in Indic traditions. The study of Hinduism in American classrooms is based on centuries of Occi-centric approaches characterized by an attitude of cultural superiority that negates or ignores the deeper meanings of Hindu philosophy, symbolism, and meditative practices.
This construct has a long, complex trajectory from Greek and Roman writings about ancient India that stressed the strange and exotic, through centuries of European lust for Indian material goods that led to world conquest in order to find passageways to India’s treasures. Wild depictions of India can be found from the toga-wearing Mediterranean world on through exoticized, flamboyant images popularized during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and pre-modern/colonial era. These essentialized images retain their virulence in the present time, where Indian culture is portrayed through a P/C lens: P = pollution, population, and poverty + C = caste, cows, curry.
These historical academic assumptions are paradoxically in contradiction to stereotypes in the mainstream media about the expertise of contemporary computer geeks from India and fears of outsourcing and economic competition. Strangely enough, Hinduism is simultaneously seen as both the cause of India’s poverty and superstition and also seen to be an ancient source of scientific speculation and discovery, such as the decimal system. These paradoxical perspectives are not mutually exclusive but rather increase the exaggerated intensity of the disparity.
In early European accounts, Western scholarship often depicted India– its religious and cultural traditions– as primitive and inferior. These negative narratives about Hinduism were amped-up and codified through mandated colonial interpretations designed to disempower the subject nation. It is an unfortunate and problematic repercussion that a significant portion of today’s scholarly community continues to adhere to and promote myopic and outdated “flat-earth” views of Indic traditions. Hindu Studies in the USA is one of the last tasty morsels of officially condoned institutional discrimination remaining in the American melting pot—caught in the throat of academia.
For generations, essentialized, exoticized views of Indic traditions and customs went unchallenged. Recently however, numerous Indian-Americans, along with a growing number of non-Indian American Hindus, have sought to stimulate a rethinking of this standardized derogatory approach. Many Hindu-Americans feel an imperative to engage the U.S. educational system and point out the inappropriate and often incorrect information regarding Hindu heritage and religion. Through this emergent work, Hindu-American citizens aspire to shine the light of humanity and realism on the topic, in hopes of dispelling the pervasive clichéd stereotypes casting derision at their ancestral traditions. For example The Hindu American Foundation (H.A.F.)has done incredible work connecting with legislators in Washington, D.C. HAF was also instrumental in working with the Texas State Board of Education to improve the representation of Hinduism in Texas textbooks.
Many of these 21st century Hindu-Americans are second-generation citizens of Indian heritage who, in their youth, experienced the bias first hand in textbooks and on television. They feel entitled to raise their third and fourth generation Hindu-American children in an environment free from this institutional bias directed specifically and exclusively at their religious traditions. During the past decade, many Indian-American parents networked and approached their children’s school districts to raise awareness of this unfortunate perpetuation of exoticized misinformation.
It is important to highlight one important contrast between academia in India and the USA. Unlike in India, the academic study of religion in the USA is a major discipline involving over 10,000 university professors, most of whom are members of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Within this organized hierarchy, non-Hindus largely control the study of Hinduism. While this in itself should not affect their ability to be competent scholars, yet as an unfortunate consequence, the discipline of Hindu Studies has been shaped by the use of preconceived non-Indian categories that are assumed to be universal by Western syndicated research agendas. Most internal criticism or “peer review” comes from among scholars who are colleagues. Therefore the knowledge producers and distributors form a sort of cartel.
In contrast, the discipline of Religious Studies does not exist in India, due to political ideologies, which consider that inter-community harmony can be built only when citizens abandon religious beliefs. In India, the inappropriate term “dharma nirpeksha” has been used as a translation of secularism, whereas “pantha nirpesksha” is a more culturally correct translation. While American universities offer any number of courses for studying and teaching religions and cultures of non-Western societies, as well as their own Judeo-Christian tradition. Indian universities, in the other hand, do not engage in a similar religiously situated set of cultural studies.
In India, there is a deep prejudice against Religious Studies among a certain group of Indian academicians. Many of them think such religious or cultural education or academic research would lead to strengthening obscurantism and communal prejudices, unable to recognize the supposition that knowledge will break the bonds of ignorance. Sometimes these scholars have been derisively referred to as “the intellectually colonized secular intelligentsia”.
It is sad that in order to pursue a serious scholarly study of Hinduism, Indian Students end up going to American, or to British or Australian universities, because there are hardly any opportunities available for such study within India. This makes it all the more imperative that the Hinduism which is taught in the West is not contorted by colonial era interpretations or the hegemony of occidental tropes.
As Hindu-Americans, we have been challenged by this dreadfully stale state of academic affairs, and have responded …though sometimes we are unprepared for the counter-attacks from the Religious Studies establishment in America. There is a growing group of Hindu-Americans who have started to criticize the stereotyped negative misrepresentations of Hinduism and Indic traditions, with the hope of widening the range of ideas presented in the academy. This activism has generated a growing groundswell of support within the Indian Diaspora but has also triggered anger from among the entrenched old guard scholars of “Hindu Studies”.
It is well known that many Indian-Americans have been very successful in the West. But while Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Korean, Arab, and even various European cultures –such as Irish, Italian and French, for instance – have actively funded and managed the academic representation of their cultural identities, to a comparable extent, Indian-Americans have not done much of this type of funding. Their charitable donations have been in the context of building temples, and unfortunately, their cultural portrayals in school and college textbooks and in the media have remained in others’ hands. Even the recent Ambani and Tata donations to Harvard did not address the horrid anti-Hindu diatribes that have been published by Michael Witzel through the decades and his mean-spirited activism against Hindu-Americans.
When it comes down to living in suburbia and fitting into the diversity that is the American Melting Pot, it must be said that many Indian-American parents are shocked to read what their kids are being taught about Indian culture in the US educational system. Indian culture is often depicted as a series of abuses, such as caste, sati, dowry murders, violence, nuclear bombs, and so forth. Additionally, much of the Western academic work on Indian religions, such as PhDs and post doctoral research, has been based on sensational anthropological studies of poor low caste villagers. Then in textbooks, these data are shown as the norm for all peoples in India, including middle class urban dwellers, of whom there are many. This slanted representation of Indian identity is completely inconsistent with the way Indian-Americans see themselves and their spiritual roots. And, more importantly, though presented in textbooks as the norm, this standardized negative approach only represents a minority of peoples’ lives in India. The textbooks often elevate the obsure.
Imagine an Indian-American schoolgirl coming home and asking her parents, “Will mom have to jump on the funeral pyre when dad dies?” …that is what is being taught in her Social Studies class. Imagine the psychological damage on a young Hindu who is made to read a text that says that Ganesha’s trunk symbolizes a “limp phallus” … when just that morning he and his mother had done a Ganesh Puja for his success in school that day? Many Indian-Americans have started to challenge this standardized academic narrative and categorically state that these are NOT the defining characteristics of their identity. They have begun to question whether such sensationally distorted materials (often to the exclusion of other materials) should be taught to young people at all, and especially at such an impressionable age.
On the other side of this surprisingly intense debate are a certain type of “Westernized” scholars who insist that they know Indian culture thoroughly, based on their years of research in India, perhaps, they claim, they even know Hinduism better than Hindus themselves. They come armed with advanced degrees and endorsements from prestigious America universities; hold powerful posts in some of the most important institutions of higher education in the world; are relatively well funded; and have the ability to dispense patronage and honors to up and coming scholars from South Asia.
Inevitably, these scholars claim that self-criticism already exists in the form of “internal peer reviews” and therefore, they resist opening up the debate to non-academicians. They see such criticisms from the Hindu Diaspora as interference from unqualified people who are reacting emotionally. Such attempts by conscientious Hindus have often been branded as “Hindutva” or “saffron” or “fundamentalism”. It is unfortunate that the mere act of critiquing the institutionalized American educational establishment can elicit a high-pitched condemnation used by academicians, at a hysterical anti-Hindu pitch, to scare off more timid critics.
These controversies have generated multiple effects on both sides. On the side of the American academics, in contrast to the occidental reactions of the well-entrenched group, it will hopefully generate a movement that will lead to the beginnings of a re-evaluation and introspection regarding the study of Hinduism in the West. On the side of Indians in America, it has lent them a voice – as students whose tuitions help to fund the education system; as philanthropists being solicited for donations to colleges; and as the community being profiled previously in absentia by the scholars. Indian-Americans have also been inspired by this public debate to launch a variety of new organizations to represent them on relevant issues before the American public and authorities.
In other words, Hindu-Americans now demand participation in the debate as equals. Without a doubt, these discussions will redraw the contours of descriptions of India and will be instrumental in saying what it is to be an Indian in the 21st century. Importantly, this debate has the ability to provoke Indians to start rethinking what the West has made of India through the millennia. Unfortunately, Western representations of India have become the canonical self-representations of many Indians. Thus to change and rearrange these misrepresentations and stereotypes, we must appeal to intellectuals in India, especially students of Indian history, sociology, postcolonial studies, international relations, and Indology.
In a democratic nation with pluralistic values, it is essential that American intellectuals examine this lingering residual of scholarly bias! It is my personal and professional goal to help eliminate one of the last bastions of prejudicial stereotyping still operative in the occidental liberal academy, far out-living colonialism. According to research that I have done with the Hindu-American community, many modern Hindu-Americans have for decades intimately experienced these theoretically dense distortions and academically approved essentialisms. Indeed, Hinduphobia is one of the last little morsels of discrimination lingering in the American melting pot, caught in the throat of academia.
Those in control of the “official” narrative have heretofore rarely admitted that there is a bias. They openly mock our claims and the evidence of Hinduphobia. Instead of working to clear away the perceived discrimination – as is the norm in America’s liberal academy – oddly, these scholars often defend subtle biases: since “that’s the way Hinduism has always been taught in the West”. Prescient trumps the present moment. Theory trumps experience. According to these petrified scholars, in order to be seen as “valid and factual” the tradition must be frozen, inert. When the object of study talks back, such as in the case of diasporic Hindu-Americans, it can be threatening—the butterfly shouldn’t baulk.
This newly raised “insider’s perspective” threatens to tear down lingering, well-established Indological walls, constructed through the centuries by the followers of Sir William Jones and Max Mueller. This emergent movement of modern Hindus is certainly a threat to the scholarly status quo. The Internet has many on-going testimonials and observations looking these issues squarely in the face and examining the evidence of, and reactions to, “Academic Hinduphobia”. Hopefully, once the parasite is identified, we can work together to dissipate and eliminate the inherent anti-Hindu bias from the American Academy. It is slowly being whittled away…. that is inevitable.
 Occi-centric – Occi = Occidental = Western.
 The “caste, cows, curry” phrase was popularized among Hindu-Americans on Sulekha.com.
 http://www.peoplefirstindia.org/6dharma.htm Hinduism is not a religion but “dharma” which means a way of life based on universal values of humanism. Within Hinduism there are various “panths” or religions. “Dharma” has been incorrectly interpreted as “religion” and consequently “dharma-nirpeksh” construed as “secularism”, leading to the present confusion in concepts. The official translation of religion is “panth” and of secularism is “panth-nirpeksh”. The true interpretation of “Dharma” signifying the above stated attributes can only be “universal values of humanism”.