Discursive Displacement of Hindu Studies:
A Brief 2002 Peak into RISA (Religions in South Asia) Professorial e-group
Yvette C. Rosser, PhD
(not revised from 2002)
Why are mayhem, genocide, pogroms, and cultural assault in a certain area and era a fascinating academic research topic, whereas cultural assaults, genocide, and mayhem in another locale and time, are politically incorrect historical subject matter shunned by scholars?
Among academicians in American universities who are specialists in South Asian Studies and also in History departments in many institutes of higher learning in India, there is a tendency, perhaps an unwritten rule, a consensually agreed upon approach that systematically discourages objective discussions of the early years of the Islamic interface in the Indian Subcontinent. Academia has for decades sidetracked and stonewalled research projects or in-depth discussions that focus too closely on the destruction and dislocation associated with the many incursions led and organized by medieval Central Asian invaders who entered into the Indian Subcontinent over the course of five or six centuries. Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and later Sikhs endured hundreds of years of what could be called “medieval imperialism” initially characterized by a tremendous amount of religious intolerance and iconoclasm. Military adventurism inspired by Islam, brought serious pressures on indigenous religious, cultural, and political institutions. These indigenous Indian communities were able to sustain and continually reassert themselves. Strangely, their resistance, resilience, and cultural tenacity are not topics found in most treatments of Indian history. It is a period, as represented in historical texts, that almost devoid of indigenous Indian voices.
Researching various communities in the Subcontinent that passively resisted Islamization is an area that could generate fascinating biographies and ethno-anthropological studies. Much research waits to be explored that could unlock the mysteries of why India, among all nations subjected to centuries of Islamic imperialism, resisted mass conversion. Undoubtedly such research would uncover multiple explanations, correlated to specific communities and geographical locations. Theories from various disciplines could help modern researchers understand the agility and dexterity of indigenous Indians who maintained their cultural identities under tremendous pressures. However, these fields of research are rarely applied to the study of this aspect of that era.
Far too little is known about the responses of indigenous groups to those pressures brought by to India by in-feuding Islamic invaders who vied with each other as well as with Hindu rulers for military supremacy while drawing funds from the local in habitants. How did the locals resist or accommodate this political, cultural and economic exploitation? What techniques did they devise to survive the coercion brought on by years of warfare and the tumultuous turnovers in rulers and their changing laws and policies, rules that were often based on codes and canons alien and invasive to the local policies and practices?
Why are there so few narratives of the indigenous responses to the centuries of repression during which these peoples, underrepresented in standard histories, were able to retain their cultural traditions and withstand tremendous military and economic pressures? History textbooks often represent the locals as toiling away in their fields unconcerned, paying their taxes, as various dynasties and armies battled in adjacent pastures. This image of the changeless, de-politicized, unconcerned peasant is usually the only agreed upon representation of indigenous Indians during the medieval period. There is a rich alternative history waiting to be explored.
In an extended era of political uncertainty, with changes in governments brought on by military adventurism and draconian taxation and intermittent warfare, how did groups such as Jain merchants or Hindu traders and farmers maintain their traditions? What methods did these under represented indigenous peoples employ to maintain their cultural cohesiveness while cohabitating as unequals in a system designed to discriminate against their community, in particular when their religious leaders and spiritual institutions were often targeted for extermination? If a scholar asks such questions it inherently implies that there were gravely disruptive pressures acting upon the community. But, describing these pressures, the destruction of places of worship, the confiscation of properties and the banning of celebrations by a series of Sultans and other Islamic rulers who participated in the extermination and dislocation of large numbers of indigenous peoples of “Dharmic” traditions—these are not acceptable topics of study.
It is therefore almost impossible to address related subject areas such as the tenacity of many Hindu and Jain (aka Dharmic) communities that retained their customs under considerable duress for centuries. Who were these peoples, the middle class entrepreneurs, the higher castes who continued their traditions privately when under constraint, in their kitchens so to speak? Importantly, and especially, how did the Hinduized Adivasi and Tribal communities resist Islamization passively? What were the majority of the inhabitants of the Subcontinent doing during the medieval period and why have their stories been excluded from history books?
Brahmins and Kshatriyas were often targeted by the invaders for being the holders of tradition and the traditional defenders of the faith. There are many tales of Brahmins being singled out by Islamic warriors for special humiliation, splattered with the blood of beef and other polluting disgraces, and Kshatriyas committing mass suicide rather than submit to defeat. Given these dramatic levels of violence, the vast majority of the inhabitants of India don’t have their narratives included in standard history textbooks. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and other communities with beliefs characterized by qualities associated with Sanatana Dharma, though subjected to intense pressures for half a millennium, were somehow able to continue their traditions. These Dharmic traditions did not disappear, unlike their non-Abrahamic “Pagan” counterparts in other parts of the world that experienced the same pressures and slowly ceased to exist. After a few hundred years most cultural areas invaded and governed by Islamic rulers almost became completely Islamized. The core of India, even after more than five hundred years remained Dharmic.
This remarkable resilience of cultural tenacity, a dramatic example of civilizational continuity is not part of the world’s most well known and fascinating lines of research. The lost centuries of Indian history are due to the contemporary road blocks constructed to prevent a dispassionate discussion of the traumas brought to India by the early Islamic invasions. If scholars are repeatedly chided and labeled pejoratively for investigating the details of these invasions, such discouragement naturally precludes serious study of the controversial topic and ultimately denies students access to the information. In this environment, the lack of scholarly research prohibits a deeper understanding of the impact and correlative indigenous responses of the peoples inhabiting the subcontinent during this dramatic and draconian historical period. This unwritten prohibition of historical negationism prevents inquiries not only into valuable areas of research that could enhance our understanding of the history of the world, but also dismisses an opportunity to better understand human nature.
There are often discussions among scholars that India is not really a nation, as we think of modern nation-states. Yet there are others who argue that for millennia India has exuded a civilizational recognition between its far-flung geographical parts—rather a proto-nationhood, or rastriya, that has a geographically distinct antecedent reflected in ancient literature, core beliefs, and common traditions. Most modern Indians think of their country in these terms—a modern nation with ancient connections. Today’s India has developed a national identity based on a perceived political or national unity shared by its diverse peoples, whose shared histories long predate the incorporation of independent India in 1947. Many contributions to the development of this Indian identity have come from lesser-known communities, whose stories are usually left out of the approved historical narrative of the nation. There are obvious gaps in the standard retelling of the story of India as told in history textbooks, gaps from the ancient period to the modern. Gaps in our knowledge of the past have been created by an over concern regarding the possible ideological consequences of historical narratives. Voices of the past have been caught and held captive by a contorted epistemology of twisted representations, without which, their stories could be told, in a fuller telling, a multi-nuanced treatment.
Communities such as the Jats, who resisted Islamization in a more aggressive manner but just as effectively as the Jain merchants, would be a fascinating area of historical interest. Unfortunately, most scholars consider this topic to be politically incorrect and often the Jats are depicted as rebels plundering Aurangzeb’s empire—which is represented as the official government of the time, rebellion equivalent to treason. The subaltern responses to official Islamic imperial power are not part of the tale of the Indian nation. In depth research of subaltern Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Rajputs, peasants, farmers, women, a multitude of communities, who in various overt and covert ways resisted Islamization during the sustained violence and instability of the medieval period is a field of research that has been only vaguely investigated.
In recent decades the continuing sophistication and development of the discipline of historiography has not led to any investigations into the indigenous peoples who lived in India between 900 CE on through the Mughal empire. What little has been written from an indigenous perspective does not get included in syllabi or recommended reading lists for courses on Indian history. Academic research attempting to piece together the lives and activities and understand the experiences of the indigenous communities in medieval India remains a virtually untapped and tremendously interesting potential area of study.
What were their allegiances and identities? What were the inter-relationships among different groups? Did they work together across cultural and caste differences to resist the invaders? Were there migrations of communities in the wake of the invaders’ arrivals? How did caste operate—did it act to preserve identities or to divide communities? Or both? Importantly, why are the feelings and reactions of these subaltern cultural groups and socio-religious communities not part of the broader retelling of the history of the medieval period of Indian history? Why have subalterns who resisted British imperialism been lauded in history as freedom fighters, dedicated to the nation of India, yet, those same commoners who resisted Islamic imperialism are decried as communalists and anti-Indian? Shivaji is perhaps the only exception, who by virtue of his high profile found his way into most history books, yet even so, in many tellings, he is considered to be a communal figure—opposing the empire!
Modern Muslims living in modern India have no connections with those hoards of early invaders. In fact, many Muslim groups who settled in India also were victims of other groups of invaders and often Hindus and Muslims fought together against attacking armies. The story is far more complex than communal conflicts, though much of the violence was perpetrated by armies led by Islamic generals against indigenous non-Islamic peoples. However, there are many reasons and examples why this history of this period cannot be simplified on communal grounds.
Importantly, the story is not engraved on the present. If the tale of Medieval India were told without the concealment of the violence and with a non-sensationalist factuality, dealing with the ground realities as they can be reconstructed, it would lessen rather than increase intercommunity tensions. As years pass, all nations and peoples who live together have to own up to their pasts so to speak. American textbooks finally talk fairly freely about the evils and terrors of slavery, they lament the heartless genocide of the indigenous population of the Americas. US textbooks have their share of triumphalism, but they nonetheless take responsibility for discussing the more terrible things upon which the country was founded, not just the good parts. These discussions in US textbooks became more graphic and realistic after the Civil Rights movement, written with a somewhat more nuanced and sensitive inclusion of African Americans and other minorities in the historical narrative. In part, such multicultural approaches are attempts to help people face the past so as to learn from mistakes and try to avoid racism and other destructive forces in the future.
US textbooks will one day undoubtedly have to deal with the folly of the Cold War and Vietnam, in a realistic manner, and consumerism and other massive wastes of resources. Undoubtedly, one day, when the history of the World Bank is honestly written, textbooks will have to address the failure of the IMF and WB, and its reverse flow of capital from poor to wealthy nations. From decade to decade, textbooks must be altered, facts are reinterpreted. .New ideas and information change the way we understand the past. German textbooks do the same, they carefully explain the sins of the Nazi past in an effort to prevent their recurrence. Japan has also done soul searching in the course of writing school textbooks. How many sins of the past should be aired? This type of debate among historians goes on in all nations.
A study of the medieval period in Indian history should be written with an effort to understand the lives of the indigenous people of that time, if written by historians with no ulterior motives to stir up ancient resentments. If written in non sensationalist prose, dispassionately employing the art form of the historian, looking for interconnections between peoples and their responses—such a history would be a long over due treatment of a dynamic historical era from a much neglected perspective. Why no one has looked at this topic is because there has been an intellectual cartel that has intimidated and opined until such an approach is almost inconceivable.
A well-known group of “Marxist/Leftist/Progressive” Indian intellectuals, who refer to themselves as “The Delhi Historians’ Group” have during the past three decades created an academic blockade that has been very effective and nearly impossible to transcend. The strident efforts of this group of Indian scholars have helped to institutionalize the widely accepted taboo against teaching about the topic of medieval terrorism and Islamic imperialism. In academic institutions in many countries in the west and in India–in departments of South Asian Studies–there is a prejudice against studying this indigenous resistance. The indigenous response that resisted the pressures to Islamize created by centuries of the political and military presence of Islamic ruled states, kingdoms and fiefdoms is a taboo topic. At present, there is no room in the academic world for such research, which by inference must have referents to the violence which characterized that period of military aggression, violence brought on by invasions, circa 1000 CE onwards.
The first five hundred years of the interface of Islam in Indian history can be said, at the very least, to have been architecturally harmful on a fairly vast scale. There were hundreds of architectural sites–Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain–located across broad areas of the pre-Islamic Subcontinent that were destroyed or desecrated. This is not a secret, the remains of these centuries of vandalism are littered here and there and everywhere, across the foothills of the Himalayas to Orissa, down both coasts and into South India and of course in what has come to be called the “cow belt” in central India.
Without having to explain too explicitly or investigate very deeply it is generally understood that these invaders, who moved in and out and settled down here and there in various locations across the Subcontinent over the course of several centuries, had a disruptive impact on at least those indigenous places of worship and learning that they razed to the ground to make a political point or to pillage. There are also records indicating that, incidentally, they put a good number of the local inhabitants to the sword. Some how the academic exercise of investigating the points of view of the victims, in this case, the lives of the non-Islamic Indians in the Subcontinent during this era, is taboo, politically incorrect.
In contrast to victims of other such cultural onslaughts in the history of mankind, these indigenous Indic peoples survived, and maintained their culture. But, this topic is a subject of study that is discouraged and disallowed in politically correct departments and esteemed academic journals. Research proposals looking at the impact that early Islamic armies had on indigenous faiths are looked down upon as theoretically inferior and with little academic value. Since there is a blind spot to the violence of that period, there can be no valid research into the responses of the victims. If rape is dismissed as quasi-acceptable, not really a crime, there is no voice for the raped.
Soon after the death of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), armies of Islamic generals captured territory from Spain to Sindh, and within a few centuries troops and cavalries were garrisoned in Afghanistan. Archers and swordsmen and battle hardened tribal warriors from Turkmenistan, Iran and other Central Asian areas began coming into India for gold and glory, justifying their plunder in the name of their God, Allah. Once the Hindus and Buddhists had been subdued or displaced in the land of the seven rivers, these invaders later settled down in Panjab and Delhi. They moved beyond the Doab, eventually battling each other as well as an assortment of Hindu Rajas as various rulers and warriors went east and south and ruled from urban centers scattered across Hindustan.
Indian history as it is written is the story of those invaders, not the indigenous responses. The irony of such a one sided history is that though Islamic dynasties moved across India for seven hundred years ruling in different manners in various locations, fewer than fifteen percent of the local inhabitants became Muslim, except on the far east and west fringe, that were mostly Buddhist. The story of that Hindu resistance and resilience remains inadequately researched.
Certainly, many of the later Islamic rulers, such as Akbar, were less iconoclastic and more appreciative of Indian aesthetics and they helped to create what has come to be called India’s composite culture. However, quite a few of the early Central Asian invaders and rulers systematically destroyed hundreds of temples and shrines, the remains of which are archaeologically attested. Regardless of the differences between the early and the later Muslim rulers, it can be said without a doubt that the centuries of invasions, conquest, and Islamic political domination could not but have had a disruptive effect on the construction of Indian holy sites and by extension, a retarding impact on the practice and propagation, much less the scriptural development of indigenous traditions. When armies go marching through, grabbing live stock, slaves and loot, destroying places of worship and burning down scholarly institutions, those involved with teaching, and learning, and theorizing about the meaning of life, would obviously be forced to run away, go into hiding, cloister in secrecy, be killed, or perhaps to save themselves, become co-opted and de-acculturated.
There can be no question that centuries of such pressures would put stress on the tradition under siege and play out in an introverting and potentially arresting way. Such destructive and constrictive pressures can stunt progressive innovative processes and cause people to hark back to moribund traditions in order to stave off the threats against the status quo and ensure the survival of the community under attack. Contraction and retreat to orthodoxy are common self-preservation techniques, stimulated by fear or loss, symptomatic of societies under extreme pressures that warp normal development and often bring in degenerate or exclusivist practices. Centuries of violent disruption and coercion and selective genocide, such as slaves transported from Africa to the Western Hemisphere–or the destruction of Native American traditions, pogroms and genocides in Russia, Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as the multiple invasions of the Subcontinent– leave very little space for the preservation and development of “native” philosophical literature and the furthering of indigenous educational traditions. Under such consistent constraints, institutions and social connections more often than not atrophy and/or unravel.
This is a generally understood analysis, any society that for centuries, or even decades, is subjected to continuous or sporadic political, economic, and religious discrimination and warfare will naturally incur some disconnecting repercussions and often lose their ancestral identity in part or entirely. Hindus and other indigenous groups in India, though subjected to tremendous pressures, were able to retain their traditions and beliefs and preserve vast amounts of ancient literature and keep thousands years old ideas and philosophies alive. In comparison to the rest of the world this is quite remarkable. Such a uniquely sustained historical variable offers an area of research that would prove fruitful for understanding resilience from sociological, anthropological, theological, and psychological points of view.
Much research needs to be done investigating the resilience capacity of India’s Hindu/Vedic/Dharmic traditions. Many communities living in India’s neighboring cultural areas, where non Vedic religions such as Buddhism and Zoroastrianism were practiced, lost their connections to their ancient or ancestral pasts, succumbing to similar civilizational onslaughts and pressures that somehow the core Hindu areas of North and South and central India were able to withstand. Why aren’t the stories of those who retained and preserved their Indic traditions central to the narrative of the Indian nation? Central to the narrative of the history of the world?
In the Subcontinent, over the centuries, large pockets of peoples previously associated with Dharmic faiths gradually became Islamized, in some cases the conversions were rapid and rather violent. Yet, for many still unexplained and certainly complex reasons, the core areas of Hindustan or Bharat, near Delhi and Lucknow, along both coasts in Gujarat and Orissa, in the tribal heartland and into the deep south, the vast majority of the Subcontinent remained Hindu–even when under the rulership of often arbitrarily ruthless Islamic regimes. In spite of resisting what was at times quite a violent interface sustained by palace intrigue and frequent warfare, this cultural resilience is usually ignored by post-modern and post-colonial historians. Though latter-day subalterns who fought the British are championed and exalted by eminent historians as representing a proletarian engagement with imperialism, their medieval counterparts are denied a voice.
Many of the same scholars who have advocated reading between the texts, studying official colonial documents in reverse, are adverse to using the medieval chronicles to learn more about these medieval subalterns. Ground breaking usage of materials distinguished the subaltern scholars. It has been suggested that the records of the medieval period could be similarly deconstructed to lead to investigations into the response of the people–reading the hagiographies and tales of conquest commissioned and written by Islamic invaders, backwards, so to speak.
A valid use of such materials could lead the researcher to understand what the common man and woman were doing in response to decrees and other chronicled descriptions of the actions of medieval Islamic rulers. This method of studying the subaltern by turning the records left by the rulers on their heads to understand the underside is a valuable technique. Unfortunately, many scholars do not consider the common people of Hindustan who withstood centuries of Islamic imperialism to be a proper topic of study, unlike anti-British subalterns. Perhaps this is due to the type of literature available–chronicles that might cast the invaders in too negative a light. Or perhaps the whole subaltern project has been co-opted and cannot take up topics that are considered politically incorrect by their peers. Peers who are in part made up of that coterie of academic gatekeepers known as the Delhi Historians’ group. These icons of Indian secular socialist school of scholars are near and dear in Departments of Asian Studies in American. For several decades there have been close associations between a select group of Indian social scientists and American academicians, many of whom belong to internet discussion groups such as RISA-L (Religions in South Asia), which will be discussed at length in the second part of this essay.
Anyone in India who has read a newspaper in the past few years, and certainly scholars in departments of South Asian Studies, as well as members of the RISA academic discussion group, will be aware of the “history wars” being waged by a group of leftist historians who have fashioned themselves as the guardians of secular historiography. This verbose group of progressive historians, (these scholars previously referred to themselves as “Marxist” or “leftist”, but since the fall of the Soviet Union prefer the term “progressive”) have been vigilantly guarding the gates of academia to keep out research about medieval subalterns– communities who retained their identities, the farmers, peasants, and common men and women who withstood centuries of Islamic invasions, taxation, conscription, and other problems associated with medieval imperialism.
The stories of these indigenous peoples are elided and eclipsed in the generally accepted and government sponsored history of the nation. Yet, these sentient beings who inhabited the Indian Subcontinent between 900 CE and the early modern European interface, had lives. Somehow, only Al Burundi and K. S. Lal seemed to have noticed. There has been no theoretically based implementation of the subaltern analyses deconstructing the innumerable Muslim chronicles to uncover the experiences of the oppressed from the records left by the dominant group. Selective history has dominated the field. It is a field of study still ruled by the rulers.
The subalterns in the Middle Ages who rose in revolt or continued their traditions in covertly antagonistic submission, are not part of the politically correct historical tale as depicted in standard narratives. These brave resistors to Islamic aggression are rarely studied, the Jats, the Sikhs, the Rajputs. Their stories are considered communal… and tangential to the mighty Mughals to whom they, being weak Hindus, gladly, according to the writers of history, married off their daughters. Indigenous resistance to medieval imperialism is a largely untapped area for social science research. There is an unspoken and ubiquitous obstacle, a contemporary academic resistance, obstructing the telling of such historical tales of indigenous resistance to Islamic imperialism. Even to call it Islamic imperialism is traitorous to the code of silence and whitewashing that characterizes the historiography of this period.
The arguments and evidences that could describe such a research design are easily substantiated, validated by vast amounts of historical, archaeological, architectural, ethnographical, epigraphical, and anthropological data. However, there is a trend, which as far as I have been able to discern is a ubiquitous tendency, practiced in the vast majority of universities in the USA and in India and perhaps in universities in other countries, to deny the violence and its corollary resistance of what is usually referred to as the medieval period in Indian history.
From my experience, most professors at universities shy away from any discussion of the severity of the violence of the medieval period. Many scholars nurture passionately held personal and political agendas and seem to have pre-scripted attacks designed to deny voice to anyone who discusses the less savory aspects of the early Indo-Islamic interface. Those who ask controversial and politically incorrect questions are branded as fostering communal disharmony and lending their research to the promotion of religious intolerance and violent cultural hegemony.
It is reasoned by many esteemed historians that serious scholarship dealing with the destruction of temples and Islamic attacks against indigenous Indian settlements is an area of research that is tainted by Hindu nationalism. Some of India’s greatest historians of the early twentieth century including R.C. Majumdar, Jadunath Sarkar, and others have been evicted from the standard reading list and replaced by R.S. Sharma and Romila Thapar, Bipin Chandra, Satish Chandra, K.N. Panikkar and a few prominent others. Funds from academic bodies, such as the ICHR, made sure that several books by each of the above progressive scholars were translated into numerous Indian languages, even after the books were already several decades old. Ironically the collected writing and speeches of some of India’s greatest freedom fighters have not been made available as widely as the historical narratives created by the Delhi coterie, guarding the gates of scholarship.
For decades the field was effectively closed to those not aligned with the ideology of R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib, and variations on their particular non-nationalist view of Indian history. Some who broke with the mold, such as the world famous archaeologist B.B. Lal, were ignobly ejected from the world of “real scholarship” and subsequently ridiculed in the press and in professional papers as politically incorrect, and supporting fascism—which of course, he does not. Even to use the phrase “Sindhu/Sarasvati Civilization” coined several decades ago, instead of the now dated name “Indus Valley Civilization” is a red flag, or should I say saffron flag, that immediately shuts down the mental faculties of many faculty members of departments of South Asian Studies. This attachment to terminology and theory is astonishing and often gets very bitter.
The mere suggestion that statistics could be complied to analyze the economic and human impact of invaders such as Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammad Ghori, Bakhtiar Khalji, Babar, Nadir Shah, and even native-born Islamic dynastic figures such as Aurganzeb raises those same flags among many scholars. There can be little doubt that, over the centuries there were massive displacements and traumas felt by the local populations who withstood pillage and then sustained decade after decade of wars of succession and exploitative governmental systems. In military campaigns, the killing of the native population was often of genocidal proportions in Panjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bihar, and many other places. Yet, we know very little about such massive displacements. Many people fled their lands, never to return. Where did they go? How did their identities change? Why don’t more mainstream scholars care about such a vast field of relatively untapped history?
In India certain areas of historical research are considered dangerous—though research into genocide is a topic that is usually of great interest to historians, for example the Native Americans, the Jewish Holocaust or Rwanda or Serbia. But in the study of South Asia, many politically correct scholars promote what their critics call “negationism” regarding the reticence to study the medieval period. These dichotomies point to the relative, shifting nature of definitions of genocide. This leads us to ask why the scholarly community considers some instances of genocide to be politically correct while other genocidal studies, for whatever reasons, are impeded by accusations of cultural nationalism, racism, or worse.
One example that helps to unpack this problem of political correctness can be found in discussions of the destructions of the Buddhist universities at Taxila and Nalanda. These two events are often cited as examples of the negative impact the Islamic invasions had on India’s sciences and education. Prior to its destruction, Nalanda University had tens of thousands of students and provided “free education and residence … for ten years or more” and “accepted students of other faiths [besides Buddhism and Hinduism] and instructed all in the Vedas, Philosophy, Grammar, Rhetoric, Composition, Mathematics, and Medicine in addition to Buddhist doctrines. It attracted students from different parts of India, China, and Southeast Asia.” (From Historical Dictionary of India, Surjit Mansingh, First Vision Books, New Delhi, 1998, pg. 276.).
Such discussions are not considered controversial, until it is mentioned that Nalanda was completely destroyed by Ikhtiaruddin Bakhtiar Khalji, circa 1198. There is a theory of historiography which stresses that mentioning such things unnecessarily “communalizes history”. Regarding the demise of Nalanda University, it is additionally claimed, as a sort of justification or distraction, that “the Muslims only put the finishing touches on the end of Buddhism in India.” Scholars who take this tack point out that by the time Khalji arrived and burned the libraries, monks’ quarters, and classrooms to the ground, Buddhism had been corrupted by Tantrism and was on its way out of India anyway. The demise of Buddhism is blamed on the Brahmans, or the ‘Brahmanism trope’, which, it is claimed, had already virtually destroyed most of the Buddhist viharas before Islamic invaders arrived.
However, facts do not uphold this theory. Up until the time of its destruction, epigraphical evidence shows that Nalanda and other primarily Buddhist institutions enjoyed patronage from both Hindu and Buddhist benefactors and royalty. Hindus and Buddhists studied together at Nalanda, where they taught both Buddhist texts and the Vedic traditions, in Prakrits and Sanskrit, where Hindus and Buddhists were teaching and learning side by side –a long list of practices which indicate that the communities co-existed for centuries. Ironically, if scholars point this out, they are often called cultural romantics, trying to “prop up a Golden Age of Indian history that never existed except in the fantasy of Orientalists and Hindu Nationalists”.
The range of interpretative narratives are limited within nations. Available or acceptable models predetermine the interpretations that can be employed. Limitations and restrictions on historical imagination effectively control the range of possibilities within the historical field and shape the narratives—with important implications for the choice of events deemed relevant or politically correct. Such culturally constrained habits or hang-ups of historiography create blind spots and methodological blinders. In an unpublished paper, Christian K. Wedemeyer from the University of Copenhagen, quoted Hayden White, who wrote in, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973),
[T]he best grounds for choosing one perspective on history rather than another are ultimately æsthetic or moral rather than epistemological.
The Ghoris and the rest of the Turko-Afghanis traveling on horseback, who followed Ghaznavi into India for a few centuries, were obviously not all that sympathetic to most Hindu institutions, euphemistically speaking. The hesitance or complete rejection on the part of modern scholars to mention or even admit this obvious fact is an astonishing blind spot. Without a doubt, maths or piths where students studied various paths of yoga, the Vedas, the Tripitakas, astronomy/jyotish and certainly a subject as unIslamic as the Kama Sutra, would have been anathema to the moral sensibilities of the invading Central Asians, even those such as Babar who are attributed with having a poetic bent. It is well known that Babar had little sympathy for Indic aesthetics. Strangely, even to mention this lack of sympathy and its impact on indigenous learning and architecture is politically incorrect. Discussions of the destructive nature of this early Indo-Islamic interface are simply taboo, and those who broach the topic are booed into academic oblivion along with the requisite accusations of triumphalism and communalism.
An interesting and telling example of this accepted and collective response to what is considered politically incorrect scholarship happened at a lecture I attended in the Spring of 2002 at The University of Texas at Austin. It was an interesting talk delivered by Professor Wendy Doniger, based on her recent retranslation and reinterpretation of the Kama Sutra. Dr. Doniger has a bit of a controversial reputation for spicing up Hindu treatises and iconography with a touch of the lewd, but then again, I am no prude and was most intrigued to know more about a post-Victorian interpretation of the Kama Sutra.
I arrived at the lecture a few minutes early and chatted with my friend Professor George Sudarshan over a cup of tea. Professor Doniger was sitting on the couch in the reception room. She seemed like a very sweet person, and as I stood near by she complimented me on my dress. I likewise liked her jacket. She walked with a cane and appeared to be very approachable and friendly. Her lecture was lively and I appreciated her up beat attitude. She was entertaining and unconventional, and importantly from my point of view, this particular lecture was not at all “disrespectful to the tradition”. Mostly arguing against assumptions and translations in Richard Burton’s and other earlier texts, she explained her work on this ancient treatise of love and sex, showing that it was far richer and more feminist that earlier male translators had allowed. That resonated with my sensibilities.
Professor Doniger commented that “the British had looked down upon Hindu erotica and that had contributed to the present-day embarrassment about it in India”. As an aside, regarding views of many Indians as to what happened to their ancient traditions such as the Kama Sutra, she read a passage from Nobel Laurite, V. S. Naipaul,
[I]in our culture there is no seduction. Our marriages are arranged. There is no art of sex. Some of the boys here talk to me of the Kama Sutra. Nobody talked about that at home. It was an upper-caste text, but I don’t believe my poor father, Brahmin though he is, ever looked at a copy. That philosophical-practical way of dealing with sex belongs to our past, and that world was ravaged and destroyed by the Muslims. –V. S. Naipaul (Half A Life, New York: Vintage Books, 2002, p. 110)
When Professor Doniger read this passage, which was really incidental to her talk, something strange happened in the audience. On the side of the room where numerous graduate students were seated, just as she finished reading the words, “ravaged and destroyed by the Muslims”, there came a spontaneous and collective groan, just audible, simultaneous… a distinct if subtle groan. I was sitting near by. As the collective groan rippled noticeably across the side of the room, I heard several graduate students mutter remarks under their breath about Hindu chauvinism, or something of the sort—Naipaul’s perspectives were obviously not very popular among Wendy’s sophisticated and politically correct fans. The moment was over that instant. Professor Doniger, at the front of the room had not noticed the rippling groan her Naipaul quote had caused. But the collective and spontaneous groan and disapproving murmurs caught my attention.
At the first sound of the groan, I glanced at the students, young bright faces, some seemed to be from the Subcontinent. I stared at them for a few seconds as several shook their heads in disapproval of Naipaul’s words, with a few side-ways glances at one another. For whatever reasons, this group of students found the claim that the Kama Sutra and other indigenous Indian traditions were “ravaged and destroyed by the Muslims” to be an offensive statement, hence the spontaneous and collective groan. I was not the only scholar who noticed this instantaneous groan in response to what is undoubtedly a fairly verifiable bit of history. During the groan I caught the eyes of Professor George Sudarshan and after the lecture we marveled for a moment at such an instantaneously condemnatory and negative response to that comment from Naipaul, which had only stated the obvious.
One would have to assume, that the early Islamic invaders, being a bit puritanical, in all likelihood did not patronize institutions associated with such traditions as the Kama Sutra, and that they took it upon themselves to destroy such decadent enclaves and disperse the practitioners of such prurient pagan centers. Several later Mughal rulers more familiar with Indian traditions than these early invaders, studied the Kama Sutra, perhaps to help guide them through their harems. They commissioned translations of it into Persian, and produced illustrated copies. Certainly most of the Mughal rulers, except perhaps Aurangzeb, were not very austere and works like The Perfumed Garden were inspired by Indian texts such as the Kama Sutra.
However, no one can deny that Babar detested the Hindus and certainly didn’t patronize the study of the Kama Sutra… and of course Ghaznavi wasn’t exactly going around the Panjab and Gujarat endowing maths and piths! The initial impact of the Islamic invasions dealt a death blow to many of the indigenous traditions, and universities such as Nalanda were destroyed never to be rebuilt and scholars involved with writing commentaries on textual traditions such as the Kama Sutra and other sutras and shastras obviously found their patronage diminished in the ensuing mayhem of the centuries of attacks against temples and scholarly institutions by invaders who did not have an appreciation of Indian aesthetics.
However pedestrian and obvious or contested and controversial these above observations about infamous historical personalities, the violence of that period and the lack of investigations into the local inhabitants are all verifiable. The point is that scholars will not discuss it in that fashion, this negationism is ingrained, hence the well-trained graduate students’ groans. In this discussion, the historical events themselves are secondary to that ‘collective and spontaneous groan’. That groan was a response to what is considered to be a politically incorrect discourse about the Islamic invasions of India. The groans and the under the breath mutters were not to heckle Professor Doniger, that’s for certain, she was much beloved by the audience, but it was in response to that very short quote she read from Naipaul. The simultaneous, unplanned groan among graduate students in an American South Asian Studies Departments to a simple statement that implicated the “Islamic invasions” as destructive to Hindu traditions such as the Kama Sutra was an indicator of the tremendous power of the blind spot, the methodological blinders.
These students groaned because Naipaul dared to say that the loss of practical applications of Indian philosophy were “destroyed by the Muslims”. Instead of groaning under the burden of political correctness, perhaps the students could be encouraged to investigate what occurred when most of these traditions, within a few centuries had “headed to the jungles”… with the teachers dead or in Tibet, or working as cobblers. What happened to the “philosophical-practical way of dealing with” not only “sex exemplified by the Kama Sutra” but other cultural and artistic traditions? Needless to say, the teachers, philosophers, gurus, and sages of the era must have found little room for practice or experimentation or sustained peaceful periods of patronage to add commentaries to the commentaries in an environment punctuated with violent and hostile yearly raids and invasions. Wouldn’t a little simple research and clear reasoning verify that many Hindu practices were “destroyed by the Muslims”? Why the groan? Why the blind spot? Why the methodological blinders?
One famous quote by Al Burundi, perhaps the most sympathetic of the medieval chroniclers, who learned Sanskrit and greatly valued science and languages, described the results of Mahmud of Ghazni’s activities in India. He wrote that Ghazni “utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed wonderful exploits by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all direction… This is the reason, too, why Hindu sciences have retired far away from those parts of the country conquered by us and have fled to places which our hands cannot yet reach….”. It would be a relevant, if politically incorrect area of study for someone to look into where did the Kama Sutra go when, as Naipaul and Al Burundi said, it was scattered by the historical facts now protected in contemporary historiography by a ubiquitous groan?
The topic of Islamic iconoclasm in India is considered taboo, politically incorrect. Those who present data concerning these cultural and economic pressures on Indic traditions and the changes and accommodations made by locals to keep their traditions alive are considered communal and, again, politically incorrect. Scholars approaching the material in that manner are mocked and of course, there is the groan that disapproves of such communally sensitive research. If a scholar studies the Kama Sutra that is a safe area, but if he or she asks what happened to traditions such as the Kama Sutra, or the curriculum taught at Nalanda, when they “ran to the jungles” after the turn of the millennium, well those who question are groaned out of academia.
Many scholars simply don’t want to talk about what happened to Hindu traditions, because they would have to explain why it happened and that is taboo. Why and how Hindu traditions and practices contracted, constricted, and in some cases fled to foreign countries (Tibet, SE Asia) and were adapted and acculturated outside of India is a delicate area of study. It is taboo because these saints and scholars were forced to flee from their maths and piths by those unnamed well armed horsemen who came into the Subcontinent over the Khyber Pass beginning c. 1000 BCE. Be that as it may, such displacements and dramatic historical events in other parts of the world are considered worthy areas of study and are not shunned as politically incorrect. Dharmic resilience is a cultural variable that has been ignored in spite of the fact that it stands as unique and multifaceted, and awaits scholarly investigation and further explanation.
After attending the lecture by Professor Doniger, that groan returned to me several times as a symbol of the ingrained political correctness that has worked to bring research of the subalterns in the Subcontinent during the medieval period into scholarly disrepute. During the lecture I hadn’t made a notation of the quotation read by Professor Doniger. I had been taken aback by the spontaneity of that “groan” in response to the passage that blamed Islamic invasions for negatively impacting indigenous traditions such as the Kama Sutra. Hoping to get the full quote that she had read at her lecture, I emailed Professor Doniger.
At first when I explained why I wanted the quote, she misunderstood and thought that the students had groaned at something she had said. I assured her that was not the case, and relieved, she supplied the Naipaul quote. However, because of my explanation and my interest in the groan, she wrote “someone with political concerns like your own [is usually of] a relentless and humorless political bent”. Strangely, my interest in the groan immediately made her associate me with certain less savory right wing politics. The polarization is inherent and automatic. If I was interested in “the groan” it must mean that I am somehow politically tainted…. otherwise I would have groaned along with them… right?
In our brief correspondence Professor Doniger apologized for “over reacting” regarding my query about the groan, when she understood the students had groaned at Naipaul not her. In any case, though I asked her to comment, she found no interest in “the groan” or why her choice of Naipaul’s comments elicited such a response. It seems that she should have known that this direct statement, classic of Naipaul’s treatment of the Islamic interface in South Asia would have been controversial. Her being nonplussed by the groan does seem to be within the school of thought that many of her colleagues represent—often themselves groaning under the weight of exposing the lurid in Hinduism and disguising the violence in Islam.
Where, I asked Professor Doniger, did the Kama Sutra go went its traditional seats of academic study were scattered like atoms of dust? There was no interest in this direction of inquiry. All that happened in my few emails to Professor Doniger is that she confirmed that she hadn’t heard the groan. But, as mentioned, another professor and I were sitting near the back of the room and we clearly heard the groan and the muttered if muted tsk-tsks the moment after she read the passage about the negative impact of the Islamic invaders on the study and practice of the Kama Sutra. PC positions are certainly interesting but they seem to be stifling freedom of speech and dispassionate research at least into the medieval period of Indian history. If a scholar were to ask such tainted questions in a public forum, the audience would groan, loudly. Groans and boos. The offending scholar might be hissed off the panel, or kicked off the discussion list.
In 1993, when I began graduate school as a student of South Asian Studies, I noticed a bias. This bias was seemingly addressed and partially engaged by a number of thoughtful scholars spurred on in the eighties by Edward Said’s Orientalism movement and in the nineties by Ron Inden’s novel approach to Indic studies. However, as the bias spun on the many analyses in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it took on the proportions of a typhoon. The Hindus were all somehow thrown together with fascists and Hinduism was blown into fragments so it was not even a religion at all, just a collection of cults. Even Sanskrit studies had to erect a façade to protect its pundit purity from association with actual Hinduism and practicing Hindus. Indology became a socio-economic area of concern or a playground for Freudian analysis. Hindutva in many ways became synonymous with Hinduism. And subsequently, Hindutva became associated with all practicing Hindus, and therefore Hinduism equals Fascism. In a field that has become guided by a quest for the exotic and/or focused on the negative there seemed to be very little room for the personal appreciation and respect that I, and many Hindus feel for the traditions of India.
During the nineties the Internet became a useful tool for scholars to communicate and several discussion groups were established. RISA-l (Religions in South Asia List) is a discussion group sponsored by the American Academy of Religion. I was a member of RISA for over a year during which time I was expelled twice because I openly and repeatedly criticized some of the discussion threads that were particularly prejudicial against Hinduism and practicing Hindus.
Ultimately, I was “kicked off the RISA list” by the moderator for what the he called “cross-positing” and other infractions of the RISA rules, though I had cross-posted less than many members. Whatever the excuse given by the moderator, the real reason that I was unsubscribed was that I was very emphatic and consistent about pointing out the anti-Hindu bias that paraded as fact on RISA. My pointed posts often stirred up a storm. This bias was ubiquitous, both unconsciously and consciously operative on this scholarly discussion e-group. Though my email efforts were intended to urge scholars to see how such attitudes were destructive to dialogue and scholarly debates, instead, I was expelled. Examples of these scholarly and really, rather unscholarly interactions are described below. The RISA script, drawn from fact, not fiction, often reads more like a soap opera than what would seem appropriate for a forum created for rather ordinary intellectual exchanges among concerned and informed intellectuals. There appears at times a near hysteria, disproportionate to the issues.
Several interactions with prominent scholars on these high profile academic discussion groups are indicative of the anti-Hindu bias that this description seeks to highlight. The majority of the members on RISA-l are faculty in departments of Asian Studies. As such, these scholarly internet groups are a good indicator of the trends and interests of the professionals who teach about India and Hinduism in American (and Western) universities. Though in RISA group are only a few dozen regular contributors, there are hundreds of members who received the daily messages but seldom add comments to the discussions. These professionals could be called lurkers on the list, though they read the various threads, they rarely respond. The point is that these messages reach several hundred practicing professors and specialists in the field—few of whom venture forth to take issue with some of the more obvious biases.
Several times on RISA when certain types of controversial issues were brought to the attention of the members of the group, the person who submitted the message was roundly shouted down. I will only use a few of the examples, which I saved from too much correspondence, messages that were both a great distraction, taking time from other pursuits, and a source of data, to document the “bias”. I saved these controversial messages because they serve as an archive to prove the point that some of the most respected and well paid professors of Indian studies seem to have a deep aversion to Hindus, particularly an aversion to Hindus practicing modern Hinduism. There are several specific instances that I will draw from the many examples to be found on these official list-serves where the esteemed scholars of South Asian Studies were, according to my sensibilities, unduly unprofessional and with no thought of repercussions or reprisals, unabashedly and readily revealed their inherent biases.
The final discussion on RISA for which I was unceremoniously expelled from the list concerned my responses to a barrage of emails from eminent scholars claiming that most practicing Hindus, especially those living in the USA (NRI or Non-resident Indians) were fascists and knew very little about Hinduism. This was my last e-altercation on RISA, when I came to the defense of scholars who had participated in two conferences held during the summer of 2002 in the USA. But it wasn’t the first time that I had been castigated by the scholars on RISA for writing emails that begged for more dispassion and objectivity.
I strove in my messages to promote an alternative, less essentialized and exoticized view of Indian Studies. I also at times sent in messages that were somewhat provocative, intentionally presenting two sides of controversial issues. Since there was a lot of resistance on RISA to certain topics, at times I would send in reports I found of interest curious as to their reception. Ultimately, it was unnecessary for me to induce examples of anti-Hindu and anti-Indian attitudes–they were the norm.
I will draw directly from numerous email messages sent from well-respected scholars, tenured big names in the field, with many publications to their fame. Among many flippant and critical emails that were sent in through the months during which I was a member of the group, there came in the summer of 2002, a torrent of messages from scholars warning their colleagues on the RISA list that the organizers and participants at two recent conferences, WAVES (World Association of Vedic Studies) and the Indic Colloquium, sponsored by the Infinity Foundation, were promoting racist, triumphal, dangerously nationalistic views of India and the Vedas—perhaps even leading to the murder of minorities.
It was argued by several professors that the study of Hinduism was being high jacked by Hindus. Well over a dozen messages of this type were submitted, though there were several scholars who dared to say that the WAVES conference had been a positive experience. Those brave scholars were condemned for cavorting with Hindu fundamentalists and were effectively silenced. When I finally waded in, after reading such hate mail for several weeks, it didn’t take me long to be expelled from the list due to my efforts to point out the blatant and mutually agreed upon bias about this topic. These emails, which are part of the on-going “RISA-LILA” are discussed in this essay. I will move through the collection of anti-Hindu RISA threads chronologically, beginning from when I first joined this esteemed group of specialists of Religions in South Asia. However, the files of RISA are public and as far back as its inception, there have been flurries of anti-Indian attitudes.
When I joined RISA-l early in 2001 there was a fascinating debate about the mistranslations and exoticism found in Kali’s Child a sensationalist homoerotic biography of the life of the Indian saint Ramakrishna written by Jeffrey Kripal. I rarely contributed any comments, but read over the digests with interest. Additionally, there were announcements of conferences and calls for papers passed along by colleagues. Most messages were asking for help with translations of certain Sanskrit or Brajbhasha verses or about malaria prevention medication. There were useful discussions about which translations of the Gita were the best to use in Introduction to Hinduism classes, and requests for suggestions about articles and films—the usual sorts of discussions typical on such scholarly e-groups.
Quite an interesting and prolonged thread ensued when one scholar, Linda Hess wrote in and asked for information “about the darker side of [Krishna’s] play–its anarchic, amoral character?” She asked her colleagues on RISA “Has anyone written about the dark side of lila, or what lila has to do, if anything with human behavior?” This was a very popular thread, titled “Lila”, which then continued under another equally popular thread titled “Sexuality in Hinduism”. According to the vast number of suggested bibliographic references, much has obviously been written concerning erotic deviance and homosexuality in Hinduism. There were literally dozens of contributions to the threads about sexual deviance and erotic symbolism in Hinduism.
Then came the shocking experience of September 11 and RISA as with many cultural and intellectual e-groups, was silent for a few days. When the email traffic again picked up, after a few heartbreaking stabs at expressing disbelief and sorrow, RISA-l soon became a resource for web pages to help understand Islam and there were numerous messages about how to more effectively teach about Islam and how to prevent xenophobia. There were several noble submissions particularly concerning the angst felt by professors about the duty of scholars in such a crisis. There was even a push to organize a petition to ask President Bush not to bomb Afghanistan into the stone age. This was, as a far as I had noticed in over six months of membership, the first discussion of Islam on the RISA list, though as the title of the e-group implies, it is dedicated to the Religions in South Asia of which Islam is an integral part.
Along with tips about how to help students understand Islam, as so many talking heads on the television were saying in the aftermath of 9/11, the RISA list sought to understand why “Islam means peace”. There were no messages critical of fundamentalist Jihadi Islam and the issue was treated with kid gloves. One perceptive scholar asked why, if RISA is so eager to criticize fundamentalists in other contexts have there been no critical analyses of the Islamic militants who perpetrated the worst terrorist act in history? No one responded to that comment.
A week or two later, when details of 9/11 were finally aired the discussion ensued in the form of an argument about the guilt of America. There was a debate about whether because of our often inconsistent foreign policy Americans were, so to speak, asking for it. There was a great difference of opinion on this and the topic got rather heated and the moderator put an end to it. Besides this, there were amazingly few messages about September 11th, just a dozen or so, and those mainly focused on trying to understand Islam and helping students not to hate Muslims—offering resources to mitigate xenophobia. Most had links to web pages with positive discussions of Islam.
But as a few weeks passed, peppered among these rather muted responses to the tragedy of 9/11, another thread appeared in mid October titled “Hindu Militants Vandalize Taj”. Over the course of several days there were at least thirteen messages contributed to that thread. On this scholarly list that deals with Religions in South Asia there were more messages condemning and deploring the supposed hooliganism of rowdies somehow associated with the BJP at a celebration at the Taj Mahal, than there were messages critical of Islamic Militants who murdered thousands of civilians on 9/11.
The more that I followed the RISA-list the more it seemed as if it should be called RISA-LILA. Both of these topics—graffiti on the Taj Mahal and the collapse of the twin WTC towers– drifted off the RISA radar screen. The apologists, sympathetic philosophers sought to understand and explain why eighteen Islamic militants would fly airplanes full of people into buildings, killing thousands. These few emails were laced together with a discussion thread condemning the crowd of rowdies at the Taj Mahal. who it turned out did not vandalize the building and just participated in a little rambunctious behavior. Most noticeable was the disparity in the responses to these two greatly different events. RISA scholars found plenty of time and emotion to criticize “Hindu Militants” who supposedly vandalized the Taj. But they did not care or dare to look into the implications of 9/11 with the same critical eye. A little urine on the Taj surely is not as serious as the events of 9/11, but it got more bandwidth on RISA-l.
After the elections in Bangladesh and the violent repercussions suffered by the Hindu minority, I ventured to send a post to the group, including an urgent message from the HRCB (Human Rights Commission Bangladesh) with their URL. I also forwarded a request for a petition to protest the atrocities. I assumed that, considering RISA-l’s penchant for organizing petitions, and their concern about the plight of distressed peoples in South Asia, this topic would immediately be taken up very seriously. My initial post on the ethnic cleansing that was taking place in Bangladesh was sent in on October 11, only a week after the Bangladeshi elections. No one responded. Shortly thereafter, I forwarded another message from the HRCB, begging the international community to bring this carnage of the Hindu and Christian minorities in Bangladesh to the attention of the world. Still not a peep from RISA members. Their concern about Hindus did not seem to awaken when thousands were being systematically raped and tortured, and driven from their homes by government sponsored gangs in Bangladesh. Ironically, there was plenty of outrage on RISA when a few Hindu teenagers pee-peed on the steps of the Taj Mahal.
By now, after only a few months of membership I was beginning to wonder about the purpose of the RISA-list. It seemed to be a place to share lurid and negative details about sordid little verses dug from some obscure Hindu sources and reinterpreted through a paradigmatic mishmash of post-meta-theoretical homoerotic-hermeneutics. I had remained a passive member lurking on the RISA-list, quietly enduring the occasional splat of emails that as far as I could see hit way off the mark and mocked what was the subject of study, turning the Hindu into the absurd other. Because of the particular slant on RISA, I wondered how they would respond to a controversial issue such as the selection of V.S. Naipaul as the Nobel Prize winner.
When Naipaul won, I took the opportunity to write a detailed email about some of the more notoriously contentious aspects of his work, especially in the context of 9/11. I intentionally filled the message with controversies, in hopes of starting a thread about some of the issues that seemed to have been avoided through the last month. My message about Naipaul’s prize was posted to RISA on October 11. There was never a reply, no response, no one commented. I reproduce that email message below. I found it strange that the controversies I raised did not warrant a reply from scholars busy defending Islamic terrorists who blew up large buildings and condemning Hindu rowdies who did unappreciated, really quiet deplorable, eve-teasing in Agra.
Subject: Naipaul wins Nobel Prize in Literature
I was quite amazed when I heard early this morning that V.S. Naipaul has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. My first thought was that in the context of ‘9/11′, Naipaul’s work is very, very controversial. The Nobel Prize, especially the Literature and the Peace Prizes, though awarded for merit, always seem to be colored by some kind of political implications. Even when His Holiness the Dalai Lama won, I could not help but see it as a slap in the face of the People’s Republic of China, who was courting the West, generating huge financial investments…. But the Nobel Committee, in that milieu, held up China’s Tibetan atrocities for the world to see. In that way, I think that V.S. Naipaul’s Nobel prize is also situated within a geo-political message of great contemporary concern, especially post 9/11. Much like it was a controversial moment to give the Peace Prize to His Holiness the Dalai Lama just when China was trying to show a “liberal” face to the world, so Naipaul’s prize may also be intended to send a message to the world in the fall of 2001.
Naipaul has involved himself willingly in many of India’s recent controversies. He alienated any of his potential readership among the Indian Left when he came out in support of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992; and he supported the nuclear tests in 1998.
An Area of Darkness written in 1964 after his first trip to his father’s ancestral land was more an expression of his delusion when he found in India, only dirt and disease. In India: A Wounded Civilization, 1977, he wrote about India as a land of Hindus who had been injured by not only British colonialism but also by Islamic conquests, which he called India’s “dark ages”. Many travels and many years later, Naipaul’s book India: A Million Mutinies Now, 1990, brought him back to India. He admitted that his earlier treatments of India, has been colored by the “neurosis” of a “fearful traveler” who saw “only the surface of things”. His positive treatments of Hindu Revivalism and India’s spiritual and intellectual regeneration, was alarming to some readers. When he was accused of being too optimistic about modern India, and losing his earlier bitter critique, he replied, “That assumes, ‘Here is India being the same old India, and it’s the writer who has changed. India itself has gone along on its own messy way, in sloth and ignorance, and the writer now adores sloth and ignorance…’ It’s not like that. The world changes.”
Though critics were negative about his praise of Hindu culture–his loss of his earlier biting critiques of India, the reactions to his books about Islamic fundamentalism criticized him for being too harsh on his subjects. Among the Believers, 1981, and Beyond Belief, 1998, are accounts of his travels through non-Arabic Muslim countries. A New York Times reviewer thought that Among the Believers was a “vitriolic tour [that] evinces an inherent antipathy to the religion of Islam so naked and severe that a book taking a comparable view of Christianity or Judaism would have been hard put to find a publisher in the United States”. Edward Said says of Beyond Belief that it is an “intellectual catastrophe. He thinks Islam is the worst disaster that ever happened to India, and the book reveals a pathology. It’s hard to believe any rational person would attack an entire culture on that scale.”
The question is, at this point in history, given the “War on Terrorism”, why did the Nobel Committee award Mr. Naipaul the Literature Prize, considering his controversial stand on the sensitive issue of Islamic fundamentalism? Fascinating.
I see the political implications of the Nobel Committee’s choice as two fold. First in the context of Naipaul’s treatment of Islam. I can’t but speculate that the Nobel Committee must have taken his work on Islam into consideration… bringing his critiques to a broader audience at this time reveals an underlying imperative to deconstruct some aspects of fundamentalist Islam. What many have called his anti-Muslim bias, makes his selection all the more surprising. Secondly, I see it in terms of India, and his positive treatment of Hindu-Revivalism and the sympathy he has for indigenization of historiography, or as the announcement from the Nobel Committee stated, his ability “to see the presence of suppressed histories.” His recent treatments of India highlight the “collapse of the old colonial ruling culture” and he advocates the imperative that India must throw off vestiges of exploitation, whether it is economic and political colonialism or religious or cultural imperialism. So, given that India is often side-lined diplomatically, especially since 9/11 with the USA’s re-embracement of Pakistan, and in light of the fact that any decisions made by the ruling BJP government are automatically criticized by most Western commentators and academics as being saffron (aka: “fascist”!), Naipaul’s position vis-à-vis India and particularly Hindu Revivalism are also very controversial.
——-end of quote——-
Though I left the door wide open for the possibility of an interesting discussion, no one, not one scholar on the RISA list responded. I suppose that might have something to do with that politically correct groan I heard some months later, described above, at a lecture given by Wendy Doniger. That groan, which was obviously imbibed by those students from these same scholars of South Asian Studies who had nothing to say about Naipaul’s controversial Nobel prize.
In general, I was too busy to regularly read RISA, which I received in the digest form. At times I glanced at the topics, but usually just saved the messages in a mailbox. Then in January 2002, about a year after I had joined the group, a discussion came up about “Historical instances of Hindu Muslim cooperation” which I followed closely and found of interest for my own research. After some time, I submitted the following contribution. And, as before, no one, not one member of the RISA list responded to my comments, though my suggestions for a reevaluation of Muslims in India, is sorely in need of attention. RISA members didn’t pay a lot of attention to the Religions in South Asia other than the sensational aspects of Hinduism.
Date: January 12, 2002
Subject: Historical instances of Hindu Muslim cooperation
[….] With all the media hungama and rhetorical tamasha over fundamentalists and Al-Queda jihadis, is important to stress that the vast majority of Indian Muslims are far more liberal and progressive than they are given credit for. I would venture to say, more liberal than their Pakistani counterparts. Unfortunately, their voices are seldom heard.
Without a doubt, there are tens of millions of Indian Muslims who do not subscribe to the warped fundamentalist tirades of the likes of Shahi Imam Bukhari, crying from the steps of the Jama Masjid in the Spring of 2000, that he is a Talibani… when he supported the destruction of ancient statues of Buddha in Bamiyan. Or in 1999, during the “war-like situation in Kargil” he, the Shahi Imam from Delhi, INDIA, said that he was a Pakistani…. that he could not pray for the success of India’s jawans (soldiers) because they were fighting the Ummah. Yet, horribly, he and his ilk, are the mouthpiece of Indian Muslims as represented in the Western media and front-page news in Indian dailies. There is scant room for liberal Muslim voices when the anti-nationalists have monopolized the public address systems of the mosques in the major cities.
The reality is that crores of Indian Muslims love their country and would never dream of supporting Pakistan or Osama bin Laden–and they are sick and tired and embarrassed by the likes of Syed Bukhari. Perhaps India should use some Hajj funds and send the Shahi Imam to someplace like Northern Sudan, where he will feel more at home and be unable to use his pulpit to blacken to faces of his co-religionists in India. You may have seen the televised insult he gave to Shabana Asmi to whom he refused to speak, calling her a nauchwali (a dancing girl).
I would predict that the results of a demographic study of Indian Muslims in 2002 might be surprising to those inclined to suspect them of fundamentalist tendencies and lack of nationalism. Such data validating the patriotism of Indian Muslims could lessen communal tensions, and, most importantly, would embolden Indian Muslims to stand up to the fundamentalists who have grabbed the limelight.
I would venture to say that most Indian Muslims support Article 144 (Uniform Civil Code) so that all Indian citizens could live under the same laws. If given a chance, most Indian Muslims — not the fundamentalists, but the majority of Indian Muslims — would in all likelihood like to distance themselves from a history that destroyed the temples and symbols of Indian civilization. Just as Americans are critical of their ancestors who enslaved millions of Africans for hundreds of year, likewise, there are innumerable Indian Muslims who are eager to approach the contemporary history and culture of India from a radically different perspective than is usually expected. Modern Muslims in India are fully capable of embracing a sophisticated view of the past, without the misguided religious compulsion to glamorize temple desecration, or the imperatives of a politically correct Marxist teleology, and other such predetermined paradigms.
It is a shame that the voices of progressive Indian Muslims are not heard in India or internationally. In both academic and media treatments here in the USA, what we get are the sensationalist messages of Shahabuddin and Imam Bukhari — as if they were representative of the majority of Indian Muslims! These anti-national tirades are then translated through the juxtaposed rhetoric of anti-Sangh Parivar jargon, creating the academically in vogue battle of competing fundamentalisms –popular with many scholars and media outlets.
I’ve spent considerable time in Pakistan, and I can tell you that most educated Pakistanis fear the militant Mullahs and the Jihadi groups and abhor their debilitating impact on society and on Pakistan’s standing in the world community. This is just what General Musharaff said today in his televised speech to the nation which was carried live on CNN.
Mullah jokes have been common for years in the cities of Pakistan, but in Lahore and Karachi, bitter laughter offers small reprieve from the gender-biased dogmatic rhetoric that revels in a culture of fatwas, hudood and blasphemy laws. The self-appointed sectarian clerics that depreciate diplomacy and advocate violence, together with the unemployed, well armed young men pouring out of the madrassa schools, hunting heretics and kafirs in the neighborhood and abroad are scary indeed.
Liberal-minded and forward thinking Pakistanis were very alarmed about the “Talibanization of the nation.” I was told time and again that the “CIA created the Taliban Frankenstein in Pakistan’s backyard, then walked away, leaving the monster behind.” I received an email from a dear friend of mine in Larkana district of Sindh last October after the bombing had begun in Afghanistan. He is an agnostic and a staunch Sindhi Nationalist. He asked me why the western media, such as CNN and BBC, “didn’t report about the anti-Taliban rallies that have been going on in rural Sindh.” Sindhis are not fundamentalists; they are its victims. He was also one of millions of Pakistanis who hoped that America’s war on terrorism would close down the militant madrassas in Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore, turn off the thousands of fonts of fundamentalism all over Pakistan pouring out thousands of dogmatic jihadis.
The majority of scholars and intellectuals with whom I have spoken in Pakistan were scared of the fundamentalists, frightened by the possibility of a violent uprising of the half million strong, gun-toting, Madrassa trained, fundamentalist Deobandi, militant Wahabbis. Scared that on the dark, lonely road to the future, the Taliban will go bump in the night. This threat was more frightening and imminent than an American could have fathomed until the horrible events of September 11th brought it home, brought home a problem that India has faced for decades. Now, even General Musharaff is arresting these rogues– Musharaff who has repeatedly drawn a distinction between terrorists and those fighting for freedom in Indian held Kashmir. I just hope he can finally realize that his beloved freedom fighters, the jihadis funded by Pakistan and sent into Kashmir, share an agenda with those who are fomenting sectarian strife in the cities of Pakistan.
Of course, as we all know all too well, there are many other Pakistanis who vociferously and violently call for a “Taliban-type system”, inspired by the politicized sermons of the Mullah elites preaching hatred from their Friday pulpits. These zealots are willing to die to re-Islamize the nation, which is ironically, already very, very overtly Islamic. The fundamentalist perspective is especially prevalent among the poor, whose only access to education may be in a crowded madrassa where they learn that Sunni Islam is poised to take over the world of kafirs and apostates. These economically and culturally deprived young men have been taught that a Taliban-like system could overcome their poverty, their powerlessness and despair. Caught between conspiracies, corruption, and the Holy Quran, they see no alternative.
I strongly believe that Indian Muslims are, in general, as liberal as my progressive Pakistani friends. This would be a good time to survey Islamic communities in India to ascertain if my assumption is correct.
——end of quote—–
My comments went unanswered. It seemed to me after a year’s membership on this scholarly list-serve that the esteemed professionals who specialize in the study of Religions in South Asia were mostly interested in delving into some of the more prurient aspects of certain Sanskritic texts, and above all, were very vocal when it came to condemning Hindutva and anything associated with the BJP. However, there was little interest in Islam, except to discuss it sympathetically after 9/11. There was very little interest in discussing Islam in India but perhaps silence about this issue was to be expected from a discipline where Hindu nationalists are inevitably railed and derided in American universities that conversely since 9/11 have worked to shield Islam from negative scrutiny.
The tale of a scholarly discussion group would seem to be far too boring for the topic of an essay, and in general that is the case. Occasionally, Professor Michael Witzel from the Sanskrit Department at Harvard would post announcements on RISA about essays he had written, rebuttals in response to articles by N.S. Rajaram and/or David Frawley. Witzel informed RISA members, with what might be called gleeful descriptions of various historiography battles that were playing out in other internet discussion groups and in the popular media in India, especially in Frontline, published by The Hindu. These messages were amusingly familiar to those who were aware of the debates initiated by Michael Witzel on other e-groups and in the popular media in India. But on RISA Witzel proudly announced these heroic battles waged on the internet against Hindu fundamentalists. As I scanned RISA emails week after week, the anti-Hindu bias was so ubiquitous and so common that it was seemingly invisible to the scholars who projected it. And these are the scholars who teach the subject of Hinduism to our youth. They control the academic portals to India available in the West.
Somewhat concerned, if not bored by the pervasive lack of engagement with interesting topics, in mid-January I sent in a message about a new archaeological discovery In the Gulf of Cambay. Though controversial, I hadn’t realized that it would create quite the maelstrom that ensued. Since there had been no responses to my controversial post about Naipaul nor to my effort to initiate a discussion about liberal Islam in India, much less my appeal for the Human Rights Commission in Bangladesh, I figured that one more semi-controversial email from me would be ignored as well.
For multiple reasons, this message about archaeology, perhaps because it came too close to some preciously held prejudices, set off an internet bomb blast, or rather bombast, on the RISA-l. My comments about historiography initiated a series of emails that got me temporarily expelled from the list along with another scholar who supposedly attacked me, though I didn’t perceive it as an attack. My email brought down the wrath of numerous illustrious scholars, though my earlier not so innocently worded emails stimulated only silence. This message, about the Gulf of Cambay discovery was far less controversial than my post about Naipaul or about the patriotism of Muslims in India, to which not one RISA scholar cared to respond. But, my message about the discovery of this ancient urban site at the Gulf of Cambay, and my comments about historiography turned me into a despicable outsider, not worthy of association with the esteemed body of RISA scholars. Here is the letter that created the firestorm that caused me to be temporarily suspended from the RISA-list.
Date: January 17, 2002
Subject: 9,500 year old urban site in Gulf of Cambay
Excavations in the Gulf of Cambay and the politicization of historiography:
A remarkable discovery off the coast of Gujarat in the Gulf of Cambay has revealed the existence of a 9,500 year old submerged port city that pushes back the commonly held theories about urbanization by 4,000 years. This remarkable underwater find, combined with the numerous “Harappan style” archeological sites along the course of a large river that dried up around 1800 BC, have brought into question many commonly held theories about the history and culture of the Indian Subcontinent.
The Sarasvati River is described in the Rg Veda as the place where the Rishis composed the hymns… a mighty river running through the homeland of the Vedic Aryans. In recent history, Indians thought that the Sarasvati River was a mythic “underground” river that ran somewhere in the Doab and crossed under the Ganga and Yamana at Prayag. Some scholars claim that the Sarasvati River is in fact, a stream that runs through Kabul, which the Aryans passed on their way to Septa-Sindhu. However, as is now well known, Landstat photography revealed the bed of a huge river, which ran from the Himalayas to the sea. This evidence combined with the work of archeologists who have unearthed numerous “Indus Valley” related sites in the region and now the discovery of a port city that may date from 7,500 BC, indicate that our previous theories about the “Indus Valley Civilization” or “Harappan Civilization” are set to be turned upside down. As George Santayana said, “History is always written wrong and always needs to be rewritten.” Here is a short news report about this remarkable underwater find: http://www.timesofindia.com/Articleshow.asp?art_id=2140338028
City older than Mohenjodaro unearthed
REUTERS [WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 16, 2002]
NEW DELHI: Indian scientists have made an archaeological find dating back to 7500 BC suggesting the world’s oldest cities came up about 4,000 years earlier than is currently believed, a top government official said on Wednesday.
The scientists found pieces of wood, remains of pots, fossil bones and what appeared like construction material just off the coast of Surat Science and Technology Minister Murli Manohar Joshi told a news conference.
“Some of these artefacts recovered by the NIOT (National Institute of Ocean Technology) from the site such as the log of wood date back to 7500 BC, which is indicative of a very ancient culture in the present Gulf of Cambay, that got submerged subsequently,” Joshi said.
Current belief is that the first cities appeared around 3500 BC in the valley of Sumer, where Iraq now stands, a statement issued by the government said.
“We can safely say from the antiquities and the acoustic images of the geometric structures that there was human activity in the region more than 9,500 years ago (7500 BC),” S.N. Rajguru, an independent archaeologist, said.
The findings, if confirmed, will dislodge the Harappan Civilisation dating back to 2500 BC as India’s oldest civilisation.
——end of article——
When theories are dislodged, those who devised, described, and propagated them, may feel defensive and work to discredit the new discoveries that are challenging the long cherished constructs upon which they have based their life’s scholarly work. In that context, archeology in India has come under criticism by Leftist and anti-Hindu Revivalist groups who claim that “Archeology in India has been Saffronized”. Many scholars are particularly annoyed about “saffron archeology” especially when excavations dig up examples of enduring and culturally specific symbols of Hinduism or “Indic Culture” unearthed at far-flung sites across the Subcontinent-lending credence to the ancientness, cultural continuity orientation of the nationalist historians. Many influential scholars consider the “Ancientness Theory” to be a manipulation of the past by Hindu Nationalists. These scholars hold that claims to ancientness are based on a colonially constructed myth of a “Glorious Golden Age of Ancient India”. They vociferous shun this perspective as a manifestation of majoritarian communal historiography.
For instance, in this BBC article about the circa 7,500 BC sea port discovered in the Gulf of Cambay, the critics of the “Ancientness Theory” politicize the remarkable find by calling into question the motives of the research project as an attempt to validate the Hindu Nationalists’ perspective that Indian (read Hindu/ Sanskritic/ Vedic) culture is far older than the commonly ascribed date of 1800 BC, originally theorized by philologists in 19th century Europe.
Indian civilisation ‘9,000 years old’……..
[In the article, the final paragraph reads:]
Critics say the minister, who has been in the eye of a storm recently for attempts to Hinduise school history textbooks, may well be presenting these archaeological discoveries as proof of India’s glorious and ancient past. But others say only further scientific studies can tell whether such a claim can be made at all.
—–end of excerpt—-
In the summer of 2000, a group of “Leftist” (a.k.a. “Progressive”) Indian scholars held a press conference and issued a statement recommending that there should be a ban on archeological excavations that could cause communal tensions (or, indeed, could be used to validate perspectives of the Hindu Nationalists). Among those who signed this document were: Prof. K.N. Panikkar, Prof. Romila Thapar, Prof. K.M. Shirmali, Prof. Harbans Mukhia from JNU and Prof. Irfan Habib from Aligarh Muslim University and several other Indian academics who have, since the politicized historical pamphleteering that accompanied the Ram Janma Bhumi/Babri Masjid controversy in the late eighties, never missed an opportunity to condemn the motives of scholars who do not share their views of historiography, such as their former colleague, the renowned “Father of Indian Archeology”, Mr. B.B. Lal, or the prolific and brilliant Ashis Nandy, both of whom have been saffron-balled. (A strange flip to McCarthy era black-balling tactics, but here employed by Marxists against those with alternative perspectives on hot topics such as the Aryan Migration Theory, Secularism in India, etc.)
Does anyone else on this Religions in South Asia (RISA) list find this fear of archeological discoveries odd? Considering that the group of famous Indian scholars who made this suggestion includes eminent historians whose perspectives are highly regarded in Western academia, do you think academicians in the West are also hesitant to consider new data, from archeology or other disciplines, for fear of proving that Indian civilization is far older than Aryan Invasionists/ Migrationists believe?
Yvette Claire Rosser
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
The University of Texas at Austin
also see these articles re: Gulf of Cambay discovery:
——-end of quote——-
This message was the end of my RISA innocence so to speak and I was blasted, that is, bombasted off the bandwidth of this scholarly discussion group dedicated to the study of religions in South Asia. A dubious dedication, based on the hate mail I received in response to the above interesting if provocative message. On RISA there seems to be little room for research into new and exciting topics—if those topics push the academic envelop just a little too far for comfort. Saffron-phobia has created a blind spot in the turbulent field of Religions of India, of which RISA represents the eye of the storm.
Within minutes of my rather theoretically provocative post, a message came from Geoffrey Cook, a scholar with a PhD from Berkeley who studied the Indus Valley civilization and is associated with American Muslim groups lobbying the US government against the BJP. Cook has done considerable on-line politicking against what he has calls the “Nazi Hindutvas” or the “Saffron Brigade”. Cook wrote a message to RISA informing us that he had “written on saffronization & Harappa” He lamented that “Unfortunately, it is not on the web, but appeared in SouthAsia of Karaichi.” (sic) I presume most of his work is published, as he has mentioned many times, in Pakistani journals since his analyses are invariably very anti-Hindu, even anti-Indian. This biased trend, as will be seen, is representative of the type of discourse that dominates important information portals such as RISA.
Geoffrey Cook went on to say, “Personally, I am very doubtful of the datings. Unfortunately, ancient Indian history is going thro. a sea change (sic), but at the same time is being so grossly politized (sic) that it is difficult for seriously scholarly work to be done”. I agree with him 100%, and this may be one of the only times, on RISA, that I have ever agreed with Geoffrey Cook! Politics have indeed negatively impacted the ability of archaeologists and historians in India to do serious scholarly work. Cook and I see the obstructions differently. I see them coming from a multiple of hurdles placed in the way of interesting and timely topics of possible research. Cook mostly sees the threat of saffron. Many like him, including those on list-serves such as RISA are blinded by a fear of appearing too sympathetic to India and inadvertently labeled saffron. So, taking a tactic of preventative defense, scholars of South Asian Studies prefer to be on the offensive against any mention of any discovery that might in some way be supportive of a broad agenda that Geoffrey Cook and his comrades have predetermined to be saffron and therefore representative of militant fascistic Hindutva.
Once that fear of saffron-balling was sufficiently embedded in academia, topics like the Gulf of Cambay became fodder for baiting and hating. A couple of days passed without comment and I figured that my provocative message met with the same dismissal, and then an email came from someone whom I soon was to learn was a very angry and opinioned scholar of Sanskrit. Instead of continuing the thread using the original title about the 9,500 year old discovery in the Gulf of Cambay, Professor George Thompson changed the subject line of his response to “Bombast”. He wrote,
Date: Sun, 20 Jan 2002 22:49:38 EST
Several days ago Yvette Claire Rosser posted a message about some excavations at a site in the Gulf of Cambay which are supposed to be 9,500 years old. That is interesting news. She suggests that these findings should make some of us nervous.
Except for G. Cook’s expression of his reasonable misgivings about the dates, no one seems to have responded. Perhaps someone else should. In my opinion, there is nothing nerve-rattling whatsoever in such findings, no matter what their actual dating may turn out to be. As far as early urban civilizations go, this is hardly early.
More importantly for this list, it is necessary to do a little more work before deciding whether or not to revise our picture of prehistoric Indic civilizations, as Rosser impetuously urges us to do As far as I, as a Vedicist, can see, there is no good reason whatsoever to associate this culture with Vedic culture, which in my view cannot be detected in world culture, even by the most advanced theories of reconstruction, before 4,000 years ago, and which by best contemporary evidence may be substantially later in terms of definite attested evidence.
Every single effort to link early archaeological findings in the Indian subcontinent with Vedic culture has failed. Rosser has the obligation to give us a little evidence to consider, before we run off with her on her little celebration of the presumed confirmation of her familiar preconceptions. I know that there are other lists which accept such bombastic claims as hers — they even seem to encourage bombastic claims, as long as they are politically correct. But this is supposed to be a scholarly list.
What is one to think? Well, I think that Yvette Claire Rosser should show us a little scholarship. I think that she should show us why we should take her bombastic claims seriously. Best wishes,
—–end of quote—–
I reread my original post and it seemed rather playful, a lively discussion of the politicization of archaeology. The information concerning this new find, which I had forwarded was, as I had mentioned in my message, inherently a controversial topic. However, I seemed to have stepped on a few toes. Thompson’s letter sent to RISA accusing me of bombast and belittling my supposed “celebrations of familiar preconceptions” seemed like it was written by someone with a huge chip on his shoulder. His comments represented that same tendency toward negationism that I had described in my original message. I was certainly more amused than insulted.
The following day, Professor Michael Witzel, with whom I have had a few other minor internet interactions, wrote in to support the comments of Professor Thompson. His style of making comments using partially constructed sentences leaves the reader to answer the questions posed. Professor Witzel seems to have made it part of his career to criticize all scholarship emerging from Hindu India. He often mocks and scoffs at Sanskrit educational institutions in India and has a very haughty attitude towards practitioners of Hinduism. These comments are not libelous as the records of his internet critiques are available for all to see with very little effort using a search engine. Professor Witzel enjoys referencing his previous writings, often in German, especially, when he is critiquing the work of another scholar wherein he assumes that his earlier verdict is correct, but unfortunately unavailable. I will not reproduce Professor Witzel’s letter in full, it can be found on the RISA web page, but there were several comments that clearly showed his dogmatic positioning on these still contested and fluid academic debates,
Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2002
From: Michael Witzel <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Bombast
Well, George Thompson has it right. I was tempted myself to write, but desisted. Now that he has started the case, just a few points and questions: [….]
This “Indian” ‘town’ is a supposed to be few hundred years older than the settlement at Mehrgarh in Pakistani E. Baluchistan (7000 BCE). –Accident? [….]
Notice that Witzel asked this question, without completing the sentence, “Accident?” Does he imply a given in a jargon that is so common to the members of RISA that he does not have to actually ask the question? What he intended to say, and didn’t even need to, was that the Hindu nationalist archaeologists have dated this new discovery off the Gulf of Cambay to be a “few hundred years older than the settlement at Mehrgarh” obviously, in his predetermined opinion, so that the Hindus can claim greater antiquity for this site than those in Pakistani Baluchistan, which is after all enemy territory.
It is a very flimsy use of Carbon 14 dating, to base the age of a site on besting other archaeological discoveries. But in the language of scholars on RISA, exemplified by Professor Witzel, Hindus have only one agenda and that is to prove they are more ancient than Max Mueller or Mortimer Wheeler estimated. In reality, many scholars in India are looking for evidence unrelated to prejudices of the colonial past, and finding and correlating clues based on far more profound and theoretically grounded methodologies and motivations than competing with the Pakistanis. Witzel goes on, explaining that “This mania, here propagated the Indian Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, is part a pan-Asian craze for the ‘oldest’ sites…” Witzel then adds another unfinished sentence when he exclaims, “The credulity of journalists and their ‘scholarly(?)’ readers!”
Witzel mentioned such things as tidal currents, also cited as problematic in the original message submitted by me. The whole exercise was situated in a very hostile manner with Professor Witzel’s sarcasm built into every sentence. He ended his letter with this statement, “I, too, am not nervous. Why should we, anyhow? Older sites are found constantly, all over the globe… Of course none can match Frawley’s et al. ‘Vedic civilization’, more than 10,000 years ago, in the Gangetic plains (‘Vedic kings’ — among some sparse hunters and gatherers).” He signed his letter, “Keep digging! Michael Witzel, Department of Sanskrit & Indian Studies, Harvard University.”
Professor Witzel has had a long-standing and on-going media/internet based battle between several scholars such as David Frawley, N.S. Rajaram and almost anyone whom he chooses to attack in his Harvard sponsored e-journal. He inevitably uses every possible opportunity to drag the names of certain scholars through the mud. Just as I was contemplating whether I should reply to these two messages strangely titled “Bombast”, the moderator of RISA, Professor Lance Nelson, jumped in suddenly to criticize “the recent message containing a bitter and completely uncalled for personal attack on a valued contributor to our discussion community”. With our realizing it at first, I soon learned that I was the “valued contributor” to RISA-l!
Through the years I have grown so inured and accustomed to the abusive manner in which scholars write about what they imperiously consider to be “saffron archaeology” that the insulting tone of the messages sent to RISA by Thompson and Witzel were just par for the course and were not perceived as insults by me. But to my astonishment, the moderator of the RISA list extended “apologies to the offended party, and let us hope that discussions–of the issue concerned as well as others–can proceed in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”
I was surprised and pleased that I had been defended without my having to complain. I thought that RISA was turning out to be an electronic discussion group that had a bit of decorum and did not allow slip of the wrist insults to slide as academic debate. Within a few months, I was to find out that this graceful understanding of RISA was not the case at all. But in the immediate debate, another scholar Cynthia Humes, sent in a little message, RE: Personal Attacks on RISA-L, asking, “I can’t recall a personal attack. What is being referenced here?” I finally responded a few days later to RISA-l. I will only reproduce part of the letter, omitting the sections that were quoted from my original message,
Subject: 9,500 year old BomBombast
I think [the personal attack] refers to comments that Professor George Thompson wrote regarding the newspaper article about an under water urban site found in the Gulf of Cambay which I had forwarded to the RISA list. […] Dr. George Thompson wrote: She suggests that these findings should make some of us nervous.
However, I did not suggest that this finding would make “some of you nervous”…. I wrote: “When theories are dislodged, those who devised, described, and propagated them, may feel defensive and work to discredit the new discoveries that are challenging the long cherished constructs upon which they have based their life’s scholarly work.” I don’t know if my forwarding this interesting news account made Mr. Thompson nervous, but I think it may have made him defensive and work to discredit the report, and the reporter, before looking in to it further.
Mr. Thompson wrote: “In my opinion, there is nothing nerve-rattling whatsoever in such findings, no matter what their actual dating may turn out to be. As far as early urban civilizations go, this is hardly early.”
Nerve-rattling? Perhaps this sabre rattling personal attack is, however, an indication of that defensiveness that often happens between scholars. I would like to add that based on available scholarly knowledge of early urban civilizations, a 9,500 year old port city, is actually quite old… and of great interest… if it is really that old… 9,500 is hardly recent!
Mr. Thompson wrote: “More importantly for this list, it is necessary to do a little more work before deciding whether or not to revise our picture of prehistoric Indic civilizations, as Rosser impetuously urges us to do.” Impetuous? I forwarded an article of interest and then I reported about a news conference held in Delhi in the summer of 2000…. I urged no one to revise his or her picture of prehistoric Indic civilizations… I simply passed on some interesting information that if proven true, may extend backwards our dating for the Indus Valley/Sarasvati River Civilization.
Mr. Thompson wrote: “As far as I, as a Vedicist, can see, there is no good reason whatsoever to associate this culture with Vedic culture [….]. Every single effort to link early archaeological findings in the Indian subcontinent with Vedic culture has failed. Rosser has the obligation to give us a little evidence to consider, before we run off with her on her little celebration of the presumed confirmation of her familiar preconceptions..”
Please note that I did not argue about the dating of Vedic culture in my message to which Mr. Thompson responded with such a vigorously defensive posture… I only made references to the dating of the Indus Valley/Sarasvati River culture. However, I am not clear why the good professor was compelled to use such biting sarcasm when he reviewed the news article and short comments that I submitted to RISA as a “little celebration of the presumed confirmation of her familiar preconceptions.” What familiar preconceptions? Please explain what those are, as you presume them, since when have I ever discussed my conceptions with you, Mr. Thompson, much less my preconceptions?
He went on to say, “I know that there are other lists which accept such bombastic claims as hers — they even seem to encourage bombastic claims, as long as they are politically correct. But this is supposed to be a scholarly list. What is one to think? Well, I think that Yvette Claire Rosser should show us a little scholarship. I think that she should show us why we should take her bombastic claims seriously. ”
What claims did I make? I think you read into what I wrote a whole lot of preconceptions of your own! I did mention claims made from the Hindu Nationalists who do indeed believe that “Indian (read Hindu/Sanskritic/Vedic) culture is far older than the commonly ascribed date of 1800 BC, originally theorized by philologists in 19th century Europe […].”
It seems to me that Mr. Thompson’s personal attack on me, personifies the type of response that I described in the original message I submitted. I wrote that many well respected scholars have, since the “politicized historical pamphleteering that accompanied the Ram Janma Bhumi/Babri Masjid controversy in the late eighties, never missed an opportunity to condemn the motives of scholars who do not share their views of historiography…”
I think I just got condemned. … well, since […] T.N. Madan and Asish Nandy have also been condemned and called “saffron” because of their views, I am at least in good company. At the end of that original message I did ask a provocative question, which certainly did provoke the kind of personal attack that has become so prevalent in Indology and related disciplines. I asked: “Does anyone else on this Religions in South Asia (RISA) list find this fear of archeological discoveries odd? [….]
Did I inadvertently stimulate that very “fear of archeological discoveries” about which I was inquiring? I am curious because that is what I study–fear of historical revisions, attachment to established standard historical interpretations. I personally don’t think that any historical interpretation is final. This is not a post modern analysis, it is simply the way it is… history changes either due to new discoveries or because of new ways of looking at old data, or, and this should not be dismissed, because of changing social mores. (Remember in the 1960’s there were no women or people of color in American history textbooks? Now they all have a side bar of Sojouner Truth and Fredrick Douglass and Cesar Chavez, etc., etc., etc. Did history change or did how we view it change?) When history narratives change there will inevitably be some historians and other citizens who hate the changes and will stop at nothing to discredit those making the proposed changes.
The volatile nature of national identity formation implicates the politics of historiography and impacts the writing and rewriting of historical narratives. Certainly the “rewriting of history” is not unique to India, “history battles” are being waged from Israel and Palestine to the Balkans and the countries of the former Soviet Block. In the USA, during the “History Wars” in the late 1980s and 90s, educators and intellectuals from the liberal left and conservative right fought tit for tat battles in the op-ed pages of major newspapers. As Sam Wineburg, colorfully describes in his recent book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,
“The choice between the two seemed absurd but this was exactly what the debate about national history standards had become, ‘George Washington or Bart Simpson,’ asked Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) during the 1995 Congressional debates on this subject: Which figure represents a ‘more important part of our Nation’s history for our children to study? To Gordon, the proposed national standards represented a frontal attack on American civilization, an ‘ideologically driven anti-Western monument to politically correct caricature.’ The Senate, in apparent agreement, rejected the standards 99-1.”
Which history we will teach our children becomes more important than why or how history is taught The rancor that was exchanged during this debate over the U.S. National History Standards is indicative of the seriousness with which proponents of various schools of thought view their mandates, as if their very survival was at stake. As Sam Wineburg describes, “In the barroom terms befitting such a brawl, those who wrote the standards were traitors, those who opposed them, racists.” Senator Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential candidate stated on the floor of the Senate that the “national standards were the ‘handiwork of people worse than external enemies’.” Those supportive of the new National History Standards pointed out that these kinds of paranoid comments were “driven by latent fears over a diverse America in which the ‘new faces [that] crowd[ed] onto the stage of history ruin the symmetry and security of older versions of the past’.”
I would venture to say, citing Prof. Thompson’s scathing critique that in Indian historiography a similarly contemptuous mêlée has erupted around what would otherwise seem like a rather dry intellectual debate among antiquarians discussing the distant past regarding questions about the origin, or geographical homeland of the Vedic Aryans. Were they nomadic tribes originating in the Russian Steppes who came into the Subcontinent over the Khyber Pass in successive waves, beginning around 1700 BCE, where they encountered and possibly displaced a sedentary Indus Valley, perhaps Dravidian culture? Or were the Aryan family groups indigenous to India, as many archeologists and other scholars of Vedic literature now propose?
I am not so bold to claim that I know the correct answers to these questions. But I can claim that I have studied the animosities that arise when opposing groups of scholars come into conflict over historical interpretations. I look at the contested spaces. I am not positioning myself, I am examining the different points of view. What position can I take when I truly think history is such a very fluid field– always in need of revision.
Then, Professor M. Witzel wrote: “Well, George Thompson has it right.” He explained:
“This mania, here propagated [by] the Indian Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, is part a pan-Asian craze for the ‘oldest’ sites.” Fascinating, isn’t it? Sounds like Bob Dole’s method of critique applied to Indology! I love this field of research. But I am always amazed, even after so much study of the phenomenon, how nasty scholars can get when new theories are proposed that challenge the old accepted historical interpretations. By the way, I did not propose any new theories, I simply forwarded the article about the site in the Gulf of Cambay and then reported about the “fear of archeology” expressed by many scholars in India who have even held news conferences to promote this perspective. Prof. Witzel rightly pointed out that more research will have to be done to make any kind of hypothesis…. but, I for one an not willing to automatically dismiss or discredit, until additional research can be carried out.
Professor Witzel also wrote: “The credulity of journalists and their ‘scholarly(?)’ readers!” Though an exclamatory sentence does not necessarily have to have a predicate with a verb, I would like to know the end of this exclamation. I could say, with as much irony, “The inflexibility of some scholars(?) and their theoretical paradigms!”
But I definitely agree with Mr. Witzel when he writes that scholars should: “Keep digging!” [….]
—–end of quote—–
This now very long article about anti-Hindu bias on RISA would get even longer and more tedious if I were to include similarly long quotes from each of the many emails that could be used to show the inherent bias. It is important to see this bias because it is the tip of the iceberg, and therefore must be observed and investigated. Below, I summarize some of the contributions to the thread “9,500 year old BomBombast”. First, a letter from “Steven E. Lindquist, who though a student at the same university where I study, I had never heard of or met, he is in Asian Studies, I am in Education, Steven wrote, “While I am not one to endorse Dr. Thompson’s sometimes overly robust rhetoric, I feel compelled, as one who is also concerned with ancient Indian history, to throw my two rupees in.” These were his rupees,
“Whether Rosser meant to imply a critique of Vedicists or ancient Indian historians or not [her statements] are clearly provocative, if not implicitly stating that we DO NEED to revise such theories (maybe…maybe not…but certainly not based on what is known so far about this 9,500 year old “city”). As someone who studies this sort of debate, Rosser must have known that phrases such as “long cherished constructs” are patronizing and are a “less-than veiled” value judgment of those very constructs. Calling the content of the article “new discoveries” (which by implication, she does) is also a value judgment (a “discovery” is only a discovery if it is “true”). She must have known that this would provoke a (probably heated) response.”
I had anticipated that my message might provoke a response. In fact, I was keen to see if it did—I’d been stonewalled for months. Lindquist, an aspiring graduate student continued, casting aspersions at scholars who are outside of the standard academic playground of certified South Asia Studies,
I think many of us doing ancient Indian history are often frustrated that in our area non-scholarship often gets passed off as scholarship and most people outside of our area (sometimes within) can’t seem to tell the difference. Do you know how often we hear of such “grand claims” that almost inevitably turn out to be academically untenable? It is ironic that revisionist “historians” always make claims to decorum and reasonableness, when their claims from the “get-go” are usually anything but (for example, see: N.S. Rajaram in today’s “The Hindu”). Hence, the often vitriolic responses.
Unfortunately, Lindquist does not provide the readers of RISA with an example of Rajaram’s unreasonableness nor the URL to the article—no examples of such grand claims. If he is referring to the discoveries on the Gulf of Cambay, who is to say that they are not “grand discoveries” set to overturn history as we know it? So, the reader is left as Lindquist’s comments imply, with the same assumed referents made by Witzel, that only need a slight mention of certain coded names or taboo topics to invoke a whole lexicon of negative and unprofessional, outside the field of accepted scholarship meanings. It could also be said, from the perspective of Witzel et al, these shared referents are laughable theories, counter to their own, of course. Lindquist concludes, “Had I responded [to Rosser] in the first place, my rhetoric may have been different than Drs. Witzel and Thompson. However, I certainly share their critiques as well as their sentiments.”
By this time I was not too sure if I should send the RISA list any more reports about interesting if controversial historiography debates! But the defenses didn’t stop here, respected and sensitive scholars entered the fray. When Professor Luis Gonzalez-Reimann from UC Berkeley wrote in on the subject, “9,500 year old BomBombast” he kindly commented, “With all due respect” by asserting that when “theories are dislodged” some scholars “may feel defensive and work to discredit the new discoveries” I had thereby positioned myself. Professor Gonzalez-Reimann, was one of the few regular contributors to RISA who seemed to see India in a broader scope, and whose posts I usually read before filing away. He criticized my statement that sometimes new and controversial discoveries and theories challenge “long cherished constructs upon which” scholars have based their life’s work. Gonzalez-Reimann wrote, polite to the core, “Please correct me if I am wrong, but this seems directed at only one side of the discussion, namely, scholars who reject the indigenous aryanism theory and the ‘incalculable’ antiquity of all things Indian”.
Naturally, that is the standard, accepted theory–the Aryans migrated/invaded. My point was to bring up the possibility that this theory just may be wrong after all. Gonzalez-Reimann goes on to say when I wrote that new research is posing challenges to deeply held theories I was parroting the “standard arguments used by nationalists such as Rajaram against scholars such as Witzel”. Professor Gonzalez-Reimann then asked why in my messages I didn’t present “any criticism of the nationalistic attempt to appropriate history”? He stated that instead I tended to “repeat the nationalistic arguments against non-nationalistic scholars, who are criticized for either being Marxist or Western/colonialist (or Christian evangelist). If they don’t agree with the nationalistic view, they are wrong”. It did seem that the good professor lost sight of my basic argument that Indian leftists and certain vocal members of the RISA-l took the same approach. If scholars don’t agree with the politically correct view, they are wrong. Professor Gonzalez-Reimann’s comments were perceptive. My message about the archaeological find off the Gulf of Cambay included a discussion the standard media mockery of M.M. Joshi’s agendas. I didn‘t need to elaborate on that angle, most were expressly or silently in agreement. The scholars on RISA and the articles that I had forwarded had already poked enough fun of the Hindutva agenda. An insightful comment from Gonzalez-Reimann was his historical reference to what he called, “nationalistic claims” which he said “are nothing new”. He wrote, perceptively,
Quite to the contrary, they are much older than any colonial construction could possibly be. It is tradition that claims that the Mahabharata war took place 3,200 years BCE, which, of course, implies an even greater antiquity for the Vedas. These ideas have been part of tradition for centuries, but they don’t stand up to current modern scholarly scrutiny, whether archaeological or of other kinds. So one could invert your argument, and say that it is the nationalists who, to use your own words, “feel defensive and work to discredit the new discoveries that are challenging the long cherished constructs upon which they have based their life’s..work”.
I appreciated his ability to turn my ideas upside down, but nonetheless, he established his positioning that he has dismissed alternative archaeological evidence that claims to have disproved much of the “current modern scholarly scrutiny” which is not free from its own biases. Gonzalez-Reimann, mimicking the prejudices of the school of “modern scrutiny” and also that school’s assumption that anyone who disagrees with them must be uninformed, states, “You may not be aware of this, but the mere fact of using the name ‘Saraswati River Civilization’ suggests a biased view, for this is the name used when implying that the Indus Valley Civilization was Vedic”. Of course, I was aware of the controversy over nomenclature. My question remains, why is the name Indus Valley more accurate than Sindhu/Sarasvati which seems to be more inclusive? Is Professor Gonzalez-Reimann testy about what the name infers because of his support of one agenda over another?
Gonzalez-Reimann asked, at the conclusion of a very politely worded message, “We all know that Indian civilization (i.e. Indus valley civilization) is very old […] But it is a different thing to want to send Vedic culture all the way back to the Harappan or any other very early culture without reasonable evidence. Do you think there is reasonable evidence?” I never answered this important query of Professor Gonzalez-Reimann because I was informed that I was expelled from the list for answering the challenging messages of Professor Thompson with too much spunk. But then Professor Mark Juergensmeyer wrote in to say,
Thompson’s acerbic mutterings were curiously interesting, as was Prof Rosser’s spirited response. I thought she defended herself quite well without any need for us to censure her accusers. There is a certain tradition of nasty academic interchange that somehow I identify with the British that can actually be sort of amusing if you don’t take it all that seriously.
I quickly wrote to the moderator and asked him not to kick Thompson or me off the list, I found out that I was reinstated on RISA, with conditions, and then, in all that internet turmoil that I had caused, I left for a trip to India….and didn’t check my email for three weeks. Before leaving I sent in this least message on the topic of 9,500 year old Bombast
Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2002 05:57:01 -0600
Thank you professor Juergensmeyer, for your comments. I appreciate your analysis of the little tiff. Such tirades are more amusing than disturbing! I for one, treasure such exchanges, they make my research all the more juicy. I study controversy in historiography and can’t help but feel stimulated when I see it in action!
But, if you want to see some “nasty academic interchanges” … check out what is happening to scholars of Indian origin who make comments such as I sometimes make, comments meant to expand the envelope of politically correct positioning and the push academic paradigm to include new or alternative perspectives….. I can slip through by my ready sense of humor and the ubiquitousness of that pervasive “gori privilege” … however, academicians from India (read scholars of Hindu/Jain/Buddhist/Sikh origin) are ripped up, chewed to pieces and spat out by such nasty academic interchanges…. This phenomenon of “saffron-balling” certain Indian/Hindu scholars may fascinate me from a purely research point of view, but I don’t like to see it… in fact it distresses me… and more importantly, it does nothing to further the field of Hindu Studies and is in fact counterproductive.
—–end of quote—–
When I returned from India, I found several more emails on the topic I had initiated. The remaining discussions and many others can be accessed by the general public at: http://www.sandiego.edu/pipermail/risa-l/. One of the messages from a graduate student, Amod Lele from Harvard, asked me since I subscribed to the Sarasvati Theory, if I also subscribed to Creationism like many in Texas do. I sighed at the conflagration of issues. There was another post by the perennial Geoffrey Cook who mentioned, as he usually does that “there are political elements who would like to high jack our findings for their own political purposes.” And then there was a letter from Frank Conlon, the original founder of H-ASIA and thus one of the fathers of internet scholarly lists. Conlon wrote:
Sat, 26 Jan 2002 13:58:17 -0800 (PST)
From: Frank F Conlon <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: 9,500 BCE and all that…
In glancing though the accumulations of my inbox, I encountered a prolonged thread regarding some reports of claims regarding an archaeological dig producing remains of a city of great antiquity. Now that is always of interest. However, I noted as I read the initial report and the subsequent exchanges, that this was an ancient city with spin.
This email to RISA from Professor Emeritus, Dr. Frank Conlon was a message with a spin,
I have had many exchanges with Yvette Rosser, who is a graduate student, doctoral candidate in Education at the University of Texas. She is a delightful person who loves to push arguments, perhaps just for the sheer enjoyment of lively exchange. […] She even is referred to as Prof. or Professor Rosser. [….] Ms. Rosser’s interests, she has said, lie in the politicization of history in India, and there is ample scope for research on that matter. But in her posts, it appears that she wants to do a bit of a bronx cheer to a wide selection of scholars, while not quite saying that she believes that the Aryans started out in South Asia, etc. etc.
Frank from his position as Professor Emeritus and highly respected stature in academia, tried to dismiss me by saying that “I have as yet never heard Ms. Rosser deliver the goods in her conference papers and” when [she] returns “from Bharat, that the community of scholars [should] welcome her back, [as if the controversy I stirred up on RISA had turned me into a pariah] but let her work out her research program without the distractions of responses to her controversialist posts to RISA-L.” What Frank did not seem to understand is that responses to my posts to RISA-l are integral to my analysis of the inherent bias in the study of Hinduism in the American academy, of which Professor Frank Conlon is one of the most rabid anti-Hindu Revivalists in the field. His messages on the internet which I have read for years, consistently shun all research that might give any credence to issues supported by the modern Hindu revivalists.
His criticism of me was surprising and inapplicable because I have only attended one conference where Professor Conlon was in the audience when I delivered a paper. My paper concerned the negative bias in Hinduism studies and urged scholars to give agency to practicing Hindus. Professor Conlon argued with me at that time. He was the most vocal critic after my presentation, though the talk was followed by an interesting discussion in which the entire audience participated. In my presentation I contended that at conferences on India there was a preponderance of negative topics. Conlon argued that there were negative things in India that should not be hidden, and if a female graduate student from India wanted to study patriarchy, that should be encouraged. I agreed, but objected to the tendency to focus more on India’s flaws and faults than positive attributes.
Nonetheless, at that one conference in Massachusetts where both Frank and I were in attendance, my paper stimulated a lengthy debate among the scholars. The discussion went overtime and had to be regretfully ended, with a general agreement that the topic merited a conference of its own. It was also observed publicly that my presentation had elicited more discussion than any other paper. The terse RISA-l critique from Professor Conlon was not because I had not delivered the goods, as he said, it was because he did not like the goods that I had delivered. However, the issues I brought up were of such great importance to the other professionals of South Asian studies at that conference to which he referred, that a long discussion ensued, including a supportive testimonial from a Hindu professor in attendance.
Professor Conlon from his secure position in South Asian studies took it upon himself, while on vacation in Tasmania, to check his email and take the time to decree that a graduate student should not be allowed to agency on RISA. Professor Conlon concluded his message by saying, “May I apologize to any of your (sic) in advance if my phlegm and bile seem out of balance. […] Frank Conlon, Professor Emeritus, History, South Asian Studies and Comparative Religion, University of Washington, Seattle, WA”
This and many other emails accumulated while I was in India, too busy during those two weeks to visit even one cyber cafe. Meanwhile, on the RISA digest, a retired professor of English who has a fascination with India, Prof. John Perry sent a near incoherent message concerning my comments about prejudice against practicing Hindus that I had noticed on RISA and also chiding me for not wanting to spend my two weeks in India frequenting cyber-cafes, Perry wrote, “About complaints by some Indian persons ON THE INTERNET (ie, usually diasporans) about Indian historigraphy (sic) not being sufficiently reverential about India’s Aryan traditions and Hindu revivialist (sic) revisionism, Education Dept. grad student (not, please, either Doctor or Professor!!) Yvette Rosser (now claiming incommunicado status in India– no internet cafes available?)” I wasn’t sure why the moderator let such a strangely unkind message pass, but Perry ended this disjointed submission, referring approvingly to Prof. Conlon’s email mentioned above. In that same digest, dated February 4, along with these letters critical of me, there was the first message submitted about human sacrifice in Hinduism that initiated a thread that grew and grew and wove tales of an exoticized India, where virgins and tourists are fodder for the blood lust of Hindu deities.
The Gulf of Cambay topic about controversies in historiography ended with a whimper, as opposed to the bang with which it began. It was clear that bringing up the topic of the Aryan invasion or the antiquity of ancient Indian civilization could instantly generate an academic earthquake. In contrast, discussing Naipaul, or Islam in India, or the large-scale murder of Hindus in Bangladesh doesn’t even register a quiver of scholarly interest. There was some ironic amusement from the realization that RISA members could create excitement simply by submitting a message that draws attention to a topic that is supported by Hindu Revivalists. Such posts created an immediate intellectual backlash of great entertainment and educational value.
Unfortunately, this ironic almost comic knee-jerk intellectualism was not what I had expected when I initially joined RISA. I remained on the list, thinking if I continued to try, I might dislodge some of the anti-Hindu bias and in the least, I joked, that I could play the role of Durga and rise up occasionally to guard the Dharma from the academic goons who thought they owned the discourse about Hinduism—arrogant as that may seem, on both of our parts. But, my efforts were useless as will be seen with each subsequent segment of the continuing saga of the RISA-LILA.
When I returned from India I found dozens of messages submitted by esteemed RISA scholars on the topic of “human sacrifice” in Hinduism. There were so many fantastic news reports forwarded about human sacrifices from Indian newspapers that I wondered if I should be relieved that I made it out of India alive without being offered up as an ablution. After reading my emails, I felt that I was more likely to be sacrificed virtually on RISA than in Varanasi or Mumbai.
The sensational topic about human sacrifice, documented mainly by unsubstantiated news reports continued longer than topics of far greater relevance to teaching about Hinduism. The original query asked, “Does anyone have any insights concerning human sacrifice in South Asia (past & present)? … reports … are conflicted…”. The first two responses to this short but rather controversial query, offered references from respected journals. Then Witzel sent in a “plug” about his own writings on the topic (in German) adding this sensational and highly unprofessional comment, “The priests of Harisiddhi (just south of Patan, Nepal) are supposed to offer a human sacrifice every twelve years. Last time when I was around, rumours abounded about a finger found in some curry, and all foreigners teed (sic) to keep their children inside….” Both academically oriented and wild sensationalist messages continued trickling in to RISA, and finally became a deluge exposing the horrors of human sacrifice in Hinduism. Initially the messages were a bit restrained, except the “finger in the curry” one submitted by Professor Witzel.
One professor, Jack Llewellyn, wrote in a rather scintillating tone, “When doing research on the Arya Samaj in India in the mid-eighties, I heard sermons on more than one occasion which included quite hair-raising (if you’ll excuse the expression) accounts of alleged contemporary Tantric human sacrifices. I am none too sure that the rituals in question ever actually took place, but the sermons themselves were some evidence that human sacrifice occupies a place in the Arya Samajist imaginaire”.
Another scholar, Linda Iltis from the University of Washington, sent in a message correcting the comments that Witzel had made about human sacrifice in Nepal. She wrote that the people in “Harisiddhi” were she had done extensive research, “claim that the rumor of a once-in-twelve years human sacrifice was started by an elementary school textbook author who wanted to malign them, and now the rumor has spread throughout Nepal.” She added, ominously that “The Jesuits who have a school in Patan have also not hesitated to spread this rumor. And in fact I first heard it from a Jesuit scholar who advised me not to spend the night there. I did spend many nights there without incident, and in defense of my friends in Harisiddhi, I have yet to see anything that would suggest that human sacrifice was part of their tradition”. Professor Iltis did explain that in Harisiddhi, “They have initiations once every 12 years [… that] involve smashing a clay pot filled with water that is held on the heads of initiates”. She dismissed the idea of human sacrifice in Harisiddhi Nepal as sensationalist and unsubstantiated.
Regarding glib and flippant messages about human sacrifice and its centrality to Hinduism, more of the same was soon to follow. First, Paul Courtright from Emory University wrote with reference to “suttee”” that, “The category of ‘human sacrifice’ was important in the campaign for reform of Hindu practices in Bengal in the early nineteenth century”. Then Frank Korom, whose initial query about “Re: human sacrifice” wrote, after the enthusiastic response to this short question, “The conversation is now getting interesting”. That is a comment I wish I could have written, if RISA scholars would only have jumped into to discuss controversies in historiography or the condition of Hindus in Bangladesh. Those topics were sidelined or quickly exhausted, whereas human sacrifice in Hinduism was a much more popular thread.
Korom’s message made light of Witzel’s joke, “The finger in the curry rumor suggests a close parallel to the organ theft stories that circulate as urban legends not only in India but also throughout South America, and are cognate with the fried rat in KFC chicken”. The messages regarding human sacrifice in Hinduism continued pouring in. Susan Wadley at Syracuse mentioned that she was “working on an episode of an oral epic from the Braj region in which the anti-heroine (goddess/ some version of Kali/Candi) demands human sacrifice”.
Michael Witzel from Harvard writes in to thank Linda Iltis for “clearing things up” and then has a good laugh telling his colleagues this is right up his alley because he has done research into “comparative rumor studies”. Before signing off he alludes to more stories of human sacrifice in India, such as the “Indian father who offered his own daughter, for rain, say in 1979, as reported by the Indian press”. Up until this time, most scholars except Professor Witzel were keeping the discussion fairly well within scholarly perimeters, and several books about the Konds of Orissa were mentioned.
Professor June McDaniel reminded RISA that it is “questionable whether to trust oral tradition”, but she nonetheless shared a rumor heard in “rural West Bengal in 1984” where she “was warned by quite a number of local people not to visit certain villages.” She was told “that the Santal people there were performing human sacrifices to get their gardens to grow better”. She joked, “I suppose using a better grade of fertilizer”. Professor McDaniel continued, “They would chop their victims to pieces, and scatter the pieces through the jungle, invoking gods as they did so.” She added, “Apparently sacrificing the locals caused feuds that endangered their villages, so they had taken to using tourists, and about half a dozen had simply disappeared in the last two years.” Professor McDaniel asked, “Is the information trustworthy? Who knows?” And then concludes, “At that point, I was not able to research it”.
The rumors are sufficiently detailed, whereas the research is scant. Staying in the realm of urban legends RISA scholars even discussed a mouse found in a can of Coors beer. The thread about human sacrifice in Hinduism moved between the tantalizingly intriguing–with wild rumors heard while trekking through tribal areas, to journal articles that sought to lend anthropological authenticity by academically referencing such historical sacrificial practices. Cynthia Humes at Claremont McKenna College even forwarded the URL: http://www.urbanlegends.com/ for her colleagues to “enjoy innumerable forays into the alleged”. The fun this topic was eliciting died out when Professor Narasingha Sil asked for some dispassion when he wrote a strong letter on February 7, to protest the sensationalism of his colleagues. Narasingha Sil wrote,
“I have been reading with interest, amusement, and above all, with dismay, the various accounts and anecdotes concerning the practice of human sacrifice in India. My interest is generated, no doubt, by some important bibliographical information on this ritual (by the way, practiced by all cultures at one time or the other); my amusement owes to some pretty “ratty” asides that are at once humorous and entertaining. On the other hand, I am dismayed by what I consider plain rumor mongering on the part of some South Asianists who have little qualms spreading a canard in the most lurid detail and then adding a saving sentence or two warning readers that it is an unconfirmed report. I refer particularly to one such post which appears to echo the stereotype inflicted on the Santals inhabiting the border regions between West Bengal and Bihar. These tribals have already suffered multiple social stigma: their women have been victims of lust by their urban neighbors, their ancestors had been the targets of evangelical assault in the nineteenth century and they still continue to be “saved” by well-intentioned though determined soldiers of Christ even to this day. They are also the objects of fear and paranoia and even butt of <bhadralok> jokes (one distinguished member of the Calcutta gentry at the turn of the last century provocatively called the Goddess Kali <Saontal Magi>). I trust the RISA post in question, coming as it does from distinguished scholar, is innocent of any agenda, but its very broadcast in this listserv has the effect of encouraging exchanges of rumors and unconfirmed reportings (any murder by decapitation might be construed as <narabali>).
——-end of quote——
I greatly appreciated Professor Sil’s comments and thanked him privately. After that slurry into sensationalism, the RISA messages returned to interesting if less wild topics such as pilgrimage. When the gory events at the Godhra train station occurred in late February and the subsequent bloody reprisals, these communal events went unmentioned on RISA. By March 2, of the over three hundred scholars on the RISA list-serv, only Professor Purushottama Bilimoria mentioned “the disturbing events over the past two to three days in western India.” A week into the rioting in Gujarat, there was still no mention of it on RISA where instead there was a long thread about where to find videos on “fire walking” and a brief discussion about Physics and Hinduism, all interesting, the first out of this world and the second arcane, both fairly disconnected from contemporary India.
Like a cadaver returning to life, came another email from Geoffrey Cook about human sacrifice in India in which he forwarded an undocumented report. He was asked by a member of the list and the moderator not to submit such news items unless he had more information about the source. An anguished Professor Purushottama Bilimoria wrote in response to Cook’s last voodoo-type news item, “Considering so much of human sacrifice has gone on in Ahmedabad and areas over the last week that it has escaped the list. What other kind of human sacrifice are the eager scholasticized after, I fail to comprehend?” His heartfelt comments, of extreme contemporary concern to those who study religions in South Asia, were not addressed. The topic of “Hindu Muslim Consultation” initially raised by Bilimoria months earlier, went on for some time with new enthusiasm, but seemed to cause more theoretical tangles that prevented it culminating in a discussion that could address the issue of Hindu Muslim communalism and cooperation. However, for some reason, while they were occurring, none of the scholars on RISA, except Bilimoria, mentioned the communal riots in India. Though certainly a topic central to “Religions in South Asia” the communal situation in India did not hit the RISA radar screen for months.
When Geoffrey Cook re-raised the topic of human sacrifice in Hinduism a few weeks after it had subsided and the dubious victims, both locals and tourists, had been virtually buried, it generated more mindless forwards from Indian newspapers. In particular, Professor Witzel seemed enamored with this topic and sent in not only media reports, but references to Sanskrit texts that describe the ritual sacrifice of Purusha, the “first human” or other textual sources referring to such symbolic acts. Witzel rarely discriminated between what were clearly symbolic sacrifices in ancient texts and the media descriptions of supposed human sacrifices. David Freedholm, a high school teacher in Princeton who specializes in World Religions wrote an email to RISA to complain about the flippant manner in which this topic had been treated. He wrote on March 9, 2002,
Forgive me for not remembering, but why exactly are we interested in reporting cases of suspected “human sacrifice” to the list? The issues seem complicated.
First, I hope that care is taken to actually verify the stories that appear in newspapers. I’d hate to draw any conclusions at all from the kinds of material floated as fact in newspapers. Even if a death can be confirmed, we are still some way from concluding it was a case of “human sacrifice” (depending, of course, on your definition of this). Even in the US, we get reports of “human sacrifice” being performed by Satanic cults. Last night on some network news show, they had a long story about a teenage girl missing in Texas who is claimed by some police and prosecutors to have been ritually killed by Satanists. There is no physical evidence for this and they base it on jailhouse testimony and the report of a young boy. As it turns, out the women in jail who testified about others involvement have recanted and the boy now claims he made it up. Tape recordings of interviews show that the eager investigators helped manufacture the testimony. If this can happen here, do we know what is actually happening in remote villages of India?
Second, does every murder that has some apparent religious connection (e.g. “God made me do it”) constitute a case of “human sacrifice”? The second news story … itself says that the murderer used “appeasing the goddess” as an excuse to murder his wife with whom he had a longstanding quarrel. Do murders committed by those with religious delusions and who are mentally ill count as cases of “human sacrifice”?
Finally, I would just point out that groups with an anti-Hindu agenda will often use reports of “human sacrifice” to promote negative stereotypes about Hinduism. Here are two examples:
This website run by Islamic extremists sites a case of reported human sacrifice and lists it under the title “The True Hinduism”: http://www.sunnahonline.com/ilm/dawah/0020.htm
This fundamentalist Christian website reports 100 cases of “human sacrifice” to Kali yearly in India: http://religion-cults.com/Eastern/Hinduism/hindu11.htm
My only point is that care must be taken to verify reports before drawing conclusions and to present such material in nuanced ways so that they are not misused.
—end of quote—
Pasted to the end of his email Freedholm included several of the sensational newspaper references that had been submitted, to emphasize the unsubstantiated nature of such reports:
Indian Express, Aug. 7 1997:AURANGABAD, Aug 6: A woodcutter from Patoda tehsil of Beed district butchered his fifty four-year-old wife to death, on Saturday, ostensibly to appease the village goddess on the auspicious beginning of the Shravan month. Rest of article at: http://www.indianexpress.com/ie/daily/19970807/21950553.html
Indian Express, Sept. 15, 1998 MIGLANI(Kaithal), Sept 14: A bizarre incident of child sacrifice by a childless couple to have an offspring in Rajaund village. Rest of article at: http://www.indianexpress.com/ie/daily/19980915/25851874.html
Since the topic had bounced around for over a month, I finally sent in a protest email that included over a dozen references to numerous rumored instances of “cult” murders in the USA. I showed that it was not “too difficult to locate reports of cannibalism and human sacrifice, right here in our own predominantly Christian civil society” and sent in a few URLs: http://www.rense.com/ufo6/HUMSAC.htm, http://www.strbrasil.com.br/English/Res/sacrifice.htm. I mentioned Jim Jones and “his followers [who] were Christian, and asked to make the ultimate sacrifice; and David Koresh [a Christian], who did not hesitate to sacrifice the cult’s children”.
First apologizing to the RISA list for the length of my email, I justified it as a long delayed response to the many messages that were “so eager to ‘prove’ that human sacrifice still exists in India and is somehow a by-product of Hindu beliefs… the man killed his wife to ‘appease the Goddess’ etc.”. I suggested that similar reasons for murder still exist in the “Christian West and are by-products of the Bible… the man killed his wife because ‘she had the Devil in her’, etc.”.
Though the efforts of Freedholm, Bilimoria and myself should have been enough to have put the topic to rest, Michael Witzel felt compelled to respond, referring to me as an “interminable apologetic”. He explained that in Christendom there were only two instances of human sacrifice, long since theorized and contextualized into meaninglessness, “the one attempted by the very much prehistoric Abraham […] the well publicized case of one Jesus of Nazareth some 2000 [later…].” Witzel adds, “However… Hindu texts — from the Vedic human sacrifice/Purusamedha [….] to the Tantric Kalikapurana and its yearly practice, carried out in Assam […] prescribe, theorize about and describe very real human sacrifice, including the study of the facial expression of the victim”. Witzel is adamant in his admonitions towards those who discount the instances of human sacrifice in Hinduism, historically, and believe it or not, in contemporary India.
Luckily, quite a few scholars on RISA looked at this sensational topic with the same critical eye as they do other urban legends. However, Witzel contested the protests and stated emphatically that, “No amount of statistics and vague apologetic comparisons eliminates these canonical textual sources [Christian and Hindu] and the fundamental differences in approach they embody”. Witzel added, parenthetically, “(Also, even today, Satan is not an official Judaeo-Christian ‘deity’, he can’t be. Kali is very much a Hindu deity).” In the many years that I have tried to understand the symbolism of Kali, scholars I have read have been careful not to associate her with Satan, something that Witzel does quite easily, without any required caveats. Continuing his jokes regarding sacrifices, he adds “substitutions have been the rage for millennia”, suggesting smugly that “we should rather promote the Kalighat goat, the Candomble’ Orija chicken, the bland pistapas’u, or … a good red wine”—re: the blood of the lamb. I admire the playful glee that Professor Witzel exhibits in his informed internet forays into trashing Hinduism. Ironically, Hinduism is central to the field from where he makes his living. Though such tactics may appear hypocritical, professor Witzel certainly enjoys himself and can at times be very clever with words, if painfully duplicitous.
During the next few months there was information shared about camcorders and job postings, and a detailed and fun-filled thread about sandhi in Sanskrit and the pronunciation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s name. I sent in some queries about Islam and comments about religious education in Pakistan, attempting to broaden the discussion. Perhaps it was the busy spring semester, or perhaps because no one brought up the Aryan invasion theory, but controversial topics that may have strayed across RISA didn’t generate any battles until the summer months, when quite possibly professors have more time on their hands. Between June and August the keyboards were humming and RISA was a haven of anti-Hindu innuendos. On July 18 the first in a long series of emails was submitted criticizing the Vedic conference “WAVES”.
The WAVES topic had come up in previous years and earlier that spring. In April, responding to a call for papers for a panel on “Pluralism, and Interfaith Dialogue” at the WAVES conference, Purushottama Bilimoria warned RISA that the “W.A.V.E. thing is a rather risky business for serious scholars”. There was a brief discussion and Thomas Forsthoefel who had issued the call for papers, defended his participation in WAVES explaining that it “allows specialists, highly trained in content and methodology, to share these gifts and tools with others, not to mention engaging in dialogue with (and learning from) all sorts of ‘regular’ people.” Forsthoefel urged scholars to remember the “experience of being pilloried or even peppered with ad hominem attacks, [at] ‘professional’ conferences…”
Coincidentally, this message appeared on the same day as one of Witzel’s continuing messages about human sacrifice in Hinduism. Weeks after the topic had been dissected and cremated, Witzel wrote on April 3, under he subject header, “Human sacrifice piSTapazu revived” that “After all, there IS something to this sentiment”. He forwarded a report from the BBC, re: “’human sacrifice’ [….] Followers of a Hindu cult in India’s north-eastern state of Assam have revived the ancient practice of human sacrifice. But in the absence of human volunteers, devotees at the Kamakhya Temple near the state capital Guwahati are using six-foot effigies made of flour for the rite. [ ….] see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/south_asia/newsid_1908000/1908706.stm ”. The topic of human sacrifice in Hinduism was of such delight to Prof. Witzel that for months he continued to contribute scholarly references and sensational media accounts.
In July, at the same time that Abdul Kalam was nominated as President of India, I was writing about conflicting points of view about historiography among the many groups that make up India’s vibrant civil society. Kalam’s nomination by the BJP and his rejection by a few vocal Indian Muslims and by most Indian Marxists, mirrored these broader ideological and political divisions. I collected numerous newspaper articles expressing opposing opinions about Kalam’s nomination. I juxtaposed them in a document to create an example of the conflicting perspectives typical of India’s political culture. I hoped that this discussion about Kalam would spark a lively debate about the stymieing impact of political polarizations on academia, particularly Religions in South Asia. Instead I was admonished not so much for my support of Kalam’s nomination, after all I am not Indian, he is not my president, but I was criticized for just presenting the “saffron” (BJP) point of view, along side the more politically correct leftist perspectives—this objectivity was unheard of on RISA. Here is that letter, dated June 24, titled “Debate on Abdul Kalam as president of India”
I have been writing about the debates regarding the rewriting of history in India, in which the main protagonists are from opposing sides of a wide ideological chasm. The current debate on Abdul Kalam’s nomination as president of India typifies this divide.
The group of well known scholars who are self-described Leftists/ progressives/ Marxists/ secularists aligned with various Islamic and Christian groups have long propagated a Nehruvian secular socialist narration of Indian history. They pit themselves against not only the rewriting of history, but all policies of the BJP and other Hindu revivalist groups. The non-Marxist, BJP supported academicians and appointees are aligned with a bevy of regional scholars promoting a more “indigenous” model of history that does not place all events of the past into what they claim is a teleological trajectory predetermined by a final unfolding of a proletariat revolution. They also claim that Nehruvian policies were in many ways “anti-majoritarianism”.
As I was writing about this debate between these two very oppositional groups, the nomination of Abdul Kalam provided a perfect example of the kind of anti-BJP rhetoric that typifies the on-going battles for national identity.
Thus, for the past few days I have been following the debate about the nomination of Abdul Kalam as president of India. It is of interest because of the alliance between conservative Muslims and Indian leftists… the same groups who opposed the curriculum documents. Interestingly, they are the only groups in India who are opposed to Abdul Kalam’s nomination. They have also opposed the implementation of the UCC (Uniform Civil Code, Article 144), etc… all in the name of secularism.
Actually, the current NCERT textbooks, which have been in circulation for almost thirty years with only minor revisions in 1987, are at times quite unnecessarily critical of the activities of historical leaders from the Sikh and Hindu communities and often belittle the traditions of indigenous faiths such as Jainism. (I can provide examples that have caused Sikhs, Jains, and even Dalit groups to protest the treatment of their communities as narrated in the old NCERT textbooks.)
The media hoopla about the rewriting of history in India, and responding academic interest in the western scholarly community, forgets to mention that the original NCERT textbooks were written by Marxist historians such as R.S. Sharma and Bipin Chandra, and they had an agenda in their version of the narration of Indian history. In fact, many critics claim they simply continued the colonial paradigm in which India is seen as a derivative culture, with no internal cohesion and shouldn’t even really be a nation, but is more aptly many different nations based on language and geography. There is some validity to that perspective but it is not the only perspective… Unity in Diversity, etc. At any rate, one man’s history is another man’s propaganda!
Indian leftists write history to dissuade students from patriotic feelings about their nation. Oddly enough, India is the only country I have seen that uses its social studies curriculum to try to create anti-national feelings. Not that social studies should be nationalistic propaganda, though it usually is in most countries (esp. the USA!). It is interesting that NCERT authored textbooks are quite often critical of the ancient heritage of the nation. They are critical of such as things as Bhakti and Tantra, even the Sikhs and Jains are belittled… for their beliefs…. However, Islam is very rarely criticized. Anyway, the BJP led NDA government is trying to replace these textbooks with new textbooks which they claim will use non-Marxist driven methods of historiography and present a more sympathetic picture of indigenous traditions. (The publication of these new NCERT textbooks was held up by the supreme court in April of this year, though no one, including the judge and the prosecutor, has actually read the textbooks to see if they are communal–the judge actually refused to read a copy of the manuscript offered by NCERT during the court hearing…. the ruling on the case will be heard in July.)
Rewriting history aside, I found that the debate against Kalam’s nomination by the leftist parties and by several prominent Indian Muslims presented the same kind of vitriolic diatribes automatically mounted against all things associated with the BJP and associates.
I have copied below several URLs about this issue.
The first article,” What’s Muslim about Kalam?” by Dr Rafiq Zakaria, father of Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek fame: http://www.asianage.com/nmain.asp?layout=2&cat1=6&cat2=42&newsid=5949, Dr. Zakaria states that:
Dr. Kalam is not really a Muslim because [he] would always “eat vegetarian food and never show any signs of being a Muslim. I have not seen him offering prayers during namaz nor fast during Ramzan. […] Dr. Kalam never reads the Quran but every morning he goes through the Gita and is enchanted by it. He is sincerely devoted to Krishna. He recites the Hindu mantras on every occasion. Namaz does not appeal him nor has he ever fasted in the month of Ramzan. He is a strict vegetarian and a life-long brahmachari. His roots are really in Hinduism and he enjoys all the sacred Hindu scriptures. Hence the credit for his elevation, in communal terms, should go to the Hindus; to give it to the Muslims would be wrong. In fact Dr Kalam himself would be happy if he is not described as a Muslim President and his name is not linked with Dr Zakir Husain and Mr Fakruddin Ali Ahmad. [….] I wish him all the best; may God, of whatever denomination Dr Kalam believes in, be with him.”
In an article found at: http://tehelka.com/channels/currentaffairs/2002/jun/18/ca061802zafar.htm titled “The ‘Hindutva’ Muslim”
Zafar Agha asks, “Can Kalam rise above political pressure and in these trying times act as the defender of the Constitution?” Because of his dietary habits and his claims to embody Hindu Muslim unity, he is called a Hindutva Muslim… whatever that is!
Varsha Bhosle, who may be known to those who follow these kinds of debates in India, wrote a piece, titled “Red in the Face”, about the dissolution of the Left Front over the issue of Kalam’s nomination, found at: http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/jun/17varsha.htm
Shahid K Abbas at http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/jun/13prez.htm “Left fears Kalam may lack political savvy” argues “making the missile scientist President at a time of tension on the borders would send a wrong message to the international community”, and worries that Kalam would become saffronized and could turn into “another Hitler”.
However, if you read any of Abdul Kalam’s writings you will see that he is a very patriotic and secular Indian. Nonetheless, the left parties opposed his candidacy. Obviously, it is because Abdul Kalam is involved in India’s defense and is well-known for his patriotism, that the BJP nominated him.
In another article, E. Jayakrishnan quotes “CPM Politburo member Sitaram Yechury” who said that “Kalam represents the shrill militant nationalism of the BJP […] when asked about the Left’s refusal to back the man half the nation considers ‘an Indian hero’ [Yechury responded] ‘As far as we are concerned he is the candidate of the ruling coalition’. […] Politically, whatever may be Dr Kalam’s credentials, we have the right to oppose him. After all, he does represent the militant nationalism of the BJP”. This debate illuminates the chasm between the leftists who are against all BJP policies and appointments based not on merit but on a simple political criteria that anyone who will accept a nomination from the BJP must be in collusion with Fascists.
Overall, Dr. Kalam represents Indian nationalism, which has been his trademark in his commencement speeches and other writings, praising India’s contributions to world culture and prodding his fellow citizens to live up to that “timeless heritage”. However, in an article sent via email by South Asia Citizens Web, an organization that forwards leftist and secular/socialist news articles and petitions, Praful Bidwai wrote that Abdul Kalam was the “RSS’ ‘poster-boy Muslim’,” (SACW #1, 16 June 2002, see: http://www.mnet.fr/aiindex).
There is obviously a double standard here. Akbar, the left’s favorite historical Indian Muslim, is lauded for being ecumenical and secular because he embraced elements of the indigenous traditions, creating a Hindu Muslim synthesis. However, these same folks who have built up Akbar as the father of Indian cultural integration, are criticizing Abdul Kalam for his expressed appreciation of India’s Hindu culture and heritage. Go figure! You can go to http://www.rediff.com/news/pres2002.htm and read lots of news reports about this controversy.
Luckily, there has been at least this one articulate and realistic article, “A salam to Kalam for demolishing the stereotype Islam’s many children” written by Saeed Naqvi, found at: http://www.indian-express.com/full_story.php?content_id=4677.
Naqvi states “deference to the office [of the President] dictates that we set aside such observations that he may be some sort of an Islamic hippie. Even reservations on his hairstyle can be held back. In fact, the great bonus one can extract from his elevation is this: his persona will go a considerable distance in demolishing stereotypes about Muslims on the subcontinent.”
In this thoughtful piece, Naqvi argues: “We have grown so accustomed to the cliche, the broad-brush generalisation [of negative stereotypes about Muslims], that the sudden emergence of a veena-playing, Bhagawat Gita-reciting, Rameswaram-born A.P.J Abdul Kalam strikes us as an unreal happening, something at total variance with the images we have been bombarded with, ranging from Osama bin Laden to Ahmad Bukhari.”
Interesting debate, isn’t it?
——end of quote—–
Geoffrey Cook was among the first to respond, as is often the case on RISA. Whenever an issue is tinged with a leftist versus saffron potential, this gentleman considers himself the gatekeeper. Cook is a fascinating study. We have corresponded a few times. Luckily, he is not a university professor and therefore does not influence hundreds of eager young students yearly, additionally he does not sit on academic committees that approve grants and plan programs. So like me, though he received his PhD over a decade ago and mine is still in progress, he has very little impact in the scholarly community. However, he does make his opinion heard on the internet.
His focus in the last few years has been to express a very vocal anti-Hindutva obsession. He has aligned himself with Indian Marxists and also has written articles that are very pro-Pakistani and anti-Indian. He is very defensive if accused of being overly critical of India. He prides himself that in the past he had met with several high profile Hindtuva-vadis, which he thinks gives him an insider’s view to critique Hindu revivalism. Few of his colleagues on RISA express any objections to his many over-stated generalizations and political outbursts.
In his response, Cook thought I had “missed the point about the opposition to Dr. Kalam”. He compared Kalam’s nomination to “a right leaning [American] president” “nominating Clarence Thomas to the bench, a Black rightwing judge”. For me, this analogy is repugnant because Thomas represents the opposite point of view from the vast majority of African-Americans, whereas Kalam is not actively working against the interests of his ethnic group, as is Thomas.
Cook claimed that the left is opposed to Kalam because of his support of India’s nuclear program. Cook also mentioned internal Indian politics and the riots in Gujarat, adding, as an advocate, “The Left sees [Kalam’s nomination] as less than honest”. In the next few days two Indian members of RISA wrote in analyzing the Kalam situation, and criticizing Cook’s comments as far too simplistic.
Prof. P. Kumar, Director of the School of Religion and Culture, University of Durban-Westville explained the back room politics of Kalam’s nomination, and Bharat Gupt from Delhi University argued against Cook’s assessment, “On the contrary, the ground swell Indian Muslims do not trust the Leftists anymore”. Gupt mentioned that though Indian Muslims “are horrified at the Gujarat riots, they also are disillusioned of cosmetic leaders like Shabana Azmi and Engineer who are unable to offer any practical help against the fundamentalists like Shahabuddin and Bukharii”. Gupt adds, “Besides the average Muslim wants an Indian nuclear deterrent as much as a Hindu. He knows his Pakistani Muslim brethren better that any one, that they shall not hesitate to sacrifice Indian Muslims to nuke Indian kafirs”.
Cook, RISA’s self appointed guardian whose knee-jerk responses to many messages are rarely condemned by his colleagues, jumped back in to call Bharat Gupt a right-winger, while he strongly defended the Communist Party of India. He then added the following comments, designed to ominously change the topic, defusing Gupt’s criticism of the Indian left, “To religion scholars, many of you may be interested in this URL. It leads to a documentation on U.S. government hearings on the recent Gujarat riots: http://www.uscirf.gov/hearings/10Jun02/index.php3”. Cook adds, addressing Prof. Gupt, “I warn you, Sir, it takes strong intestinal fortitude”. Cook describes some of the political advocacy he supports when he mentions, “that charges against Mr. Advani & Mr. Modi are proceeding in the International Court with the support of the highest levels of the U.N. & a major European state as an amicus curae”. With this strong statement, he concludes, he is working with “the lead NGO of the NRI Muslim Indian professionals on this initiative”.
Cook’s email simply dismissed Gupt’s questions as politically incorrect. Gupt wrote, “I wish you had discussed the ground situation that I had described in my earlier post as that is more useful to students and teachers instead of the categorisation of analysis as left or right of the centre. These words have no meaning in Indian political or even the global situation today”. Labeling someone as right-wing is a device that is used repeatedly to silence scholars on various academic forums. Indian scholars especially are expected to swear their anti-BJP/anti-Hindu Revivalist credentials before they are allowed voice in academia. Gupt failed that politically correct test. He did not mince his words about the hypocrisy of the Communist Party of India. He offered several examples.
A simultaneous discussion was happing parallel to this one on RISA called “Indian films and religion” Though many worthwhile suggestions were made, Professor Tracy Coleman suggested two films that she said had worked “very well” in her “Intro Hinduism” classes: “Anand Patwardhan’s powerful documentary, RAM KE NAM” and “Deepa Mehta’s FIRE”. She added that these films are useful “after the students have read the Ramayana”.
These two films are highly negative portrayals about Indian society. The first is a very sensational documentary implicating Hindu traditions for the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The second one Fire, is about two Hindu wives who, frustrated by their husbands’ lack of attentiveness, become lesbian lovers. If these films have any relevance to understanding the Ramayana, it is very intangential, especially for beginning students. I expected that a RISA scholar would critique the use of either of these films as overly sensational and explain that showing such films to students in an Introduction to Hinduism class is counterproductive.
Viewing Raam ka Naam in such a class would be like reading Ibn Warraq’s book Why I am not a Muslim in an Intro to Islam class. This very anti-Islamic book, written by a Muslim, would not be recommended to students learning the basics of Islam. Yet, on RISA, there was not a collective outcry from specialists in the religions of South Asia. None of the sophisticated scholars on RISA objected to the spurious use of these films. There was only one letter from a graduate student in the Religion Department at Columbia University, Pankaj Jain, who wrote to Dr. Coleman, “I am quite surprised that for intro to Hinduism classes, you are showing such movies like FIRE and RAAM KE NAAM. Especially, the movie FIRE has really no connection at all to Hindu philosophy/culture/scriptures except the names of the heroines being Radha and Sita”. Jain adds, “Raam Ke Naam is just about somebody’s political perspective on current scene in India. I don’t think it is meant to introduce Hinduism in any academic class”. No other scholars wrote in to support this very valid critic from a lone graduate student. RISA-l is not really a source for the script of a blockbuster. There is very little drama, no plot, just random topics of interest such as requests for references and the usual academic fare. However, it is the occasional anti-Hindu feeding frenzies that are of interest here. Certain topics can blow the top off of this cozy self-referencing academic group.
During late June the topic of labeling that the Kalam nomination had stimulated continued. On June 28, I sent a message to RISA titled, “Labels in Academia,” I told Geoffrey Cook that I thought his comparison to Clarence Thomas, “was an insult to the pan-Indian, culturally syncretistic, patriotic, rags to riches hero that Dr. Kalam represents to the vast majority of Indian citizens. His nomination cannot be equated with Clarence Thomas… […] With all due respect for your right to own and maintain your far left of center position, this is a preposterous analogy, however well intended”. In the next paragraph I criticized fundamentalist Muslims who were against Kalam’s nomination, because he “wasn’t Islamic enough”. Who are they to judge? I continued,
What difficult to grok, in so many of these debates, is why the leftists in India often side with the fundamentalist Muslims and often (except for a few high profile liberals like Shabana Azmi and Ashgar Ali Engineer) the voices of moderate Muslims are not heard. But, the Shah Banus in India are still discriminated against because the secular Rajiv Gandhi overturned the court’s decision to grant Muslim women in India the same rights as the rest of the citizens. The secular Congress along with the leftists supported this legislation. Why? Not only because it was opposed by the BJP, that supports article 144… but also to shore up the allegiance of the Islamic fundamentalist leaders. Admittedly, this is not really typical of “the Left”, as we know it in the USA… courting fundamentalists. The Muslim Women’s Act of 1986 was a democratic disaster for Muslim women … and of course was one of the big media events in the late eighties that led to the end of the Congress party’s hold on power…. and provided grist for the BJP mill…. and discredited the leftist/secular camp.
The cleavages between left and right are strangely defined and aligned in the Indian context. The left sometimes looks quite fascist and communal. More so than those whom they call rightists (who don’t necessarily self-identify themselves as such, but are labeled that by the left). These non-leftist folks often seem more environmentally friendly and more representative of subaltern perspectives than the very vocal group of highly educated leftist politicians and academicians. (For example the mocking tones with which K.N. Panikkar speaks about regional historiography.)
The categories left and right are over simplistic, strangely distorted, and often very inapplicable in the contemporary Indian context.
I defended Bharat Gupt and told Geoffrey that such labeling was his, “not Dr. Gupt’s” and by using simplistic categories he could justify non-engagement. I explained “This tact of non-debate, where self-inscribed leftists refuse to engage those whom they perceive as rightists–simply because of the labeling–allows them, with politically correct aplomb, to ignore the issues raised”. I complained about the “total non-engagement with the contents of certain controversies by those with leftist convictions”. I digressed a bit and wrote three paragraphs about the politicization of the textbook controversies in India and then continued,
In the Indian context, those who self identify themselves as left-wing, label those whose views differ from theirs as right-wing… whether those ‘others’ self-inscribe that label or not makes little difference. They may actually find the right-wing label to be repugnant and very inapplicable, yet these non-leftists are inscribed by the leftists and dismissed as fascists. Dependant upon a model of interpretation embedded in dialect materialism –either/or–left or right– that allows very little deviation from the politically correct, leftists in India have over simplified the debate, ignoring as unworthy the actual core issues or the contexts that have created the differences in opinion.
The next day Purushottama Bilimoria wrote in support of my comments, acknowledging that my messages were pushing the envelope,
To add to Yvette’s daringly fine profile of Dr Kalam: he is also a sannyasin of sorts, a never married recluse yet a deeply personable welfare-conscious gentleman, who has been spending time in recent
years on lecture tours of regional schools trying to instill confidence in the disappointing state education system. His very private inner life suggests there is a deeply feeling and thinking human being there beyond the white coat scientist and defence consultant to the Indian Government – even if he is not overtly or covertly Muslim, religious, or even “secular” (as defined by BJPs & Co). What a right and timely choice (if it is not botched up) for a President; he would outshine Jyoti Basu any day. A comment of geoff’s puzzled me: Why would the left (or what is left of the Left according to Yvette) prefer China over India or Pakistan to excell in nuclear development – so it could extend occuppied Tibetan territory into the subcontinent? <snip>
I told Cook that Indian Muslims bringing proceeding against the L.K. Advani at the International Courts, is preposterous. In that letter available at http://www.sandiego.edu/theo/risa-l/archive/msg05637.html I asked if the International Courts of the European Union were going to reach into each and every religious or ethnic flare-up and pull out one or two guilty parties and feel they have solved an age-old dispute by removing a couple of controversial figureheads?” This strategy was especially dubious, I added, if such extraditions are “guided by partisan NGOs”, such as described by Cook. Most of these letters I will not copy here, but in response to Cook’s support of the US congressional investigations into the Gujarat riots, I suggested that it would have appeared odd if “the Lok Sabha had held a special hearing investigating the murderous siege of the Davidian compound in Waco, and subsequent deaths of women and children”. I chastised Cook for his selective view of justice, with this request,
Please ask your Indian-Muslim NRI friends to back the efforts of their brethren in Gilgit (most are Shias) who for decades have regularly and systematically been deprived of their rights and their lives by the Pakistani military regimes (including the current one), without any media [or RISA] attention or US government hearings. … the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, even after fifty-five years of nationhood, do not have full voting rights, nor do Hindus in Sindh, nor Christians in West Punjab, etc. These groups deserve their day in [court], too, don’t they?
I explained that when I was in Dhaka in 1999,
Clinton was blasting Belgrade with uranium tipped weapons and cluster bombs. Some of my Bangladeshi friends did feel a kind of gratification that the USA, after “backing Israel against Muslims for decades, was finally coming to the rescue of Islam”. However, there were surprisingly very few official statements from Muslim leaders supporting NATO’s actions in Serbia… Spring of 1999- bomb Belgrade because of the persecution of the Kosovo Muslims; Spring of 2000- bomb Dhaka for the persecution of the Chittagong Buddhists; the following year bomb Turkey for the persecution of the Kurds; heck, might as well bomb New Delhi when communal riots erupt in Kanpur or wherever. Needless to say, there was quite guarded support in the Muslim world for NATO’s U.S. led “rescue of their co-religionists” because most of the governments under Islamic leadership persecute their own minorities. (“What me next?”)
In response, Geoffrey Cook wrote me a letter off the list titled, “Have You Become a Fascist?”. He asked me if I was a “fascist like the racist, casteist Advani whom you defend?” He added, regarding the case against Advani, “The British Government is proceeding as a party […]. Kofi Anan is, also, encouraging the prosecution of this case. Yes, Mr. Advani is at least as evil as Mr. Milosovich”. Cook in this private letter also calls Bharat. Gupt “casteist,” “racist,” and “an apologist for the … RSS”. At the end of his letter he told me that my perspectives had made him “very disappointed & shocked!” I didn’t feel I owed him an apology of any kind, but I wrote him a few lengthy letters off the list to try to take the edge off. Unfortunately, I could never budge him from his need to pejoratively label those with whom he did not agree.
Luckily, not all scholars on RISA are so frothingly anti-Hindu as are Geoffrey Cook, George Thompson, Michael Witzel, and a few others whose names may or may not appear in this narrative. Fortunately, Professor Ramdas Lamb from the University of Hawaii, who is an old friend of mine of thirty years, occasionally wades into the RISA debates when the anti-Hindu bias becomes a bit too rank to bear. On June 30, Ramdas wrote, Re: Labels in Academia, etc.
One of the reasons I tend to stay out of “academic” discussions about the politics of South Asia is that they tend to end up becoming more ideological than scholarly. I strongly agree with Yvette Rosser that name calling and labeling have become a tool for many to discredit any challenge to their ideological beliefs. I have read both her and Bharat Gupt’s messages, and they appear to be as reasoned as any other opinions I have read on this list, in fact more than some. One does not have to agree with everything others think and write in order to respect their right and acknowledge the validity of their having such a view. Is there no longer any room for disagreement in academia? Unfortunately, it is looking bleak. Here at the University of Hawai’i, for example, there is the politically correct way to “understand” South Asia, and any variance becomes interpreted as right wing or fundamentalist. Interesting, those who so often label others as “fundamentalist” reveal in their own adamant rejection of alternate views a narrow form of secular ideology. Is there not something wrong with this picture? I first became interested in the scholarly study of India because I saw how the diversity of beliefs within the land and people afforded it a richness and a refreshing breadth. As a consequence, it made it impossible for so much there to be put into a neat categorized box, the way that the 18th century Britishers had attempted to do. Now, it seems, so many academics want to do just that: put into a box whatever one faction or even a few individuals are doing or believing, give it a label, call it the “real” Hindu, then either elevate it or trash it, depending on the labeler’s agenda.
The situation with the term “dalit” is a good example. I having been working with and studying a Central Indian religious group for several decades. When I have used the term “harijan” in reference to them in various forum, I have been told by some South Asianists that the “proper” term is “dalit,” not “harijan,” since individuals in that group see the label as derogatory and would never use it for themselves. The fact that members of the group in reference frequently use the term “harijan” as a self-identifier and never call themselves “dalit” seems to be irrelevant to most of those who have objected to my term usage. What becomes obvious there as in so many other instances that to an increasing number of South Asian academics there is only ONE correct way to understand and interpret things, and all variance is, simply, wrong. That is the way the various British groups viewed and interpreted India and Hinduism in the 1800s and early 1900s, and it is what prompted a spate of books and articles challenging the Orientalist and missionary views as being too myopic and inaccurate. Unfortunately, the main difference between the narrow-mindedness of those days and that of today seems to be in form alone. As William James reflected, “many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Indology, and scholarship in general, deserve much more.
—–end of quote—–
This a letter, from a tenured professor, was a masterpiece of scholarly reason, but no other RISA scholars engaged Professor Lamb’s observations, though highly relevant to the study of Religions in South Asia. What did happen was a hilarious divertissement, to take attention away from Ramdas Lamb’s clear and timely critique. Geoffrey Cook sent in a hysterical email claiming that the letter which “attacked” him had been sent in “anonymously”, though Professor Lamb’s name was clearly on the email message for all to see, and no one in his right mind would interpret his message as an attack. Cook then defended his “ideological” position as “factual”; referring again to the Gujarat riots, he added, “I believe scholars of religion are acting like ostriches here”.
Several professors wrote to calm Geoffrey down, and defuse the discussion—scuttle the debate. On July 1, Frank Conlon contributed to this thread, “Until interpretations of history and culture are somehow de-linked from current issues of politics and religion, I fear that the ‘politicized’ nature of discussion will continue”. Not acknowledging that a discussion of the “politicized nature” of academic discourse on RISA could be helpful and healing, Frank follows his fear, and asserts, “It appears to me that this particular thread has now exhausted itself”, though it is an issue central to the field. I conceded defeat due to lack of interest, and wrote the list that
The very short RISA thread on ‘Labelling in Academia’ and the damage that the left versus right polarizations are doing to the field may have exhausted itself, but the topic is vitally alive… and would seem to be incredibly integral to the scholars who subscribe to an egroup called Religions in South Asia. This controversy may have exhausted itself on RISA, but is gathering steam in many other forums (not just electronic) and should be very interesting to follow. Could such discussions enhance the way that scholars perceive India? Well, I would hope so….”
Lamb had suggested reason and open-mindedness in place of ideological rhetoric, and what he got was hysteria that led to stonewalling. A little spat of insanity on the part of Cook, diffused another opportunity to look dispassionately at the issues. The thread was exhausted for lack of engagement with the sane. I sent in a final message deploring the knee-jerk responses I had seen that automatically discouraged and discredited anything affirming in India. I sent in the URL, http://headlines.sify.com/1008news5.html?headline=Indians~get~US~patent~for~use~of~cow~urine, reporting on the topic “Indians get US patent for use of cow urine”. I asked the scholars on RISA if, because M.M. Joshi, the bete noir of South Asianist academia supported this discovery, does it become therefore, “one of those ‘knock-on’ situations that scholars must take objection to because [it represents a] modern scientific validation of ancient Indian medicinal practices?” I asked RISA members, “Should we spurn this kind of success story, and the rhetoric that naturally follows (re: glories of ancient India, etc., etc.), as representative of those “‘knock-on’ consequences” that we must consistently avoid?” After quoting from the article I asked, both in jest and anticipation that RISA can be an unfriendly place, “I really keep asking for it, don’t I?”
I may have been “asking for it”, sending provocative messages to this moribund egroup, nonetheless, hardly anyone except a near hysterical Geoffrey Cook cared enough to respond. I put the dead thread to bed by trying one more time to explain the duplicity of the critiques found on RISA that consider pro-Indian or “Hindu-centric” scholars to be fascist “anti-Western, anti-modern (e.g. obscurantist recidivists)” while at the same time, “the same scholars, will accuse their Hindu-centric ‘others’ of being pro-Western neo-imperialists (e.g. petty middle-class Delhi-wala revivalists cum American wannabes)”. I concluded, “Sometimes the insults are not very pretty!” In early July I was still doggedly trying to convince my colleagues on RISA that labeling in academia was destructive. I quoted a few excerpts from, “A Faith Besiege” in the July 8th edition of Outlook India, at: http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20020708&fname=Cover+Story&sid=1
“Sociologist T.N. Madan, emeritus professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, says he feels the ‘burden of Hindu identity’. How? “I feel burdened by the calls to glory of the Hindu right and equally oppressed when secularists become suspicious of you if you are interested in Hindu culture,” he says.”
“‘The media’s politics of labelling,’ says [Anthropologist Shail] Mayaram, “‘an have a bad effect. The papers keep talking about the saffron brigade. Historically, saffron is the colour of renunciation. Now you have taken away the colour from the believing Hindu and given it a pejorative ring’.”
This topic of labeling in academia wrapped up quickly for lack of scholarly interest but was integrally intertwined with another much more popular thread twisting its way across the RISA bandwidth at the same time.
On July 18th RISA scholars were warned again to “watch out for WAVES” the World Association of Vedic Studies. Aditya Adarkar reminded his colleagues that “Back in April, Prof. Bilimoria wrote that WAVES… was a ‘a rather risky business for serious scholars’.” Adarkar went to the conference “to see for” himself and he “found the gathering deeply disturbing”. Among other problems he pointed out was the “equivalency of ‘India’ and ‘Hindu’ [which he said] is not only historically inaccurate, it is an ethically irresponsible line to be taking in today’s political climate”. Adarkar had a problem with the “subtitle of the conference – ‘India’s Contributions to the World’ and [that] almost all the papers in the conference were on Hindu texts.” He objected to the “lack of commitment to the reality of diversity in South Asia”.
Adarkar said the WAVES conference made him “very angry because the papers … were clearly not innocent — many of them had a very specific agenda and an agenda that excluded minorities through non-representation.” He elaborated, “Even when they claimed that one of India’s great contributions to the world was a religion that excluded no other, such rhetoric rang hollow because no mention was made of any of the other religions or their potential contribution”. Adarkar worried “that the field of ‘Religion in South Asia’ can be hijacked by these sort of movements”. He added “it is incumbent upon those who know about them to speak out in no uncertain terms and warn everyone else”.
Immediately, the well known Sanskritist from the University of Indiana, Gerald Larson sent in a quick note to support Adarkar. Larson wrote,
“I am becoming increasingly concerned that the field of the serious study of South Asian religion and culture is being “highjacked” by a variety of folks with “off the wall” agendas ranging from crackpot religiosity to the worst kinds of Hindu chauvinism. I, therefore, very much appreciate the comment about the “WAVES” conference and think these sorts of things need to be exposed and rigorously criticized in the RISA exchanges. Gerry Larson”
Just a few weeks earlier, I along with several scholars sympathetic to my efforts had asked for rigorous exchanges on RISA, to discuss topics such as the damage that labeling left-wing and right-wing in the Indian context can do to the study of religion—a problem that has high-jacked the field. Though there were several positive and negative responses to these observations, the thread was quickly squelched after just a few messages. Here Larson asks us to look at only one side of those labels and rigorously critique “Hindu chauvinism”.
The WAVES thread had dozens of contributions and morphed into a general condemnation of practicing Hindus, before it was forcibly ended by the moderator at the same time that I was again expelled from the list. I was never officially informed that I had been unsubscribed and just realized after a few days that I hadn’t received the RISA digest. I contacted the moderator and he let me know that I had been expelled for “breaking the rules”. According to the governing committee I had sent in too many emails to protest the barrage of unbridled biases I was reading on RISA during the late summer of 2002. I did exceed the limit of messages, sending in six submissions over a two day period, but I think the real reason is that I pushed the envelope too far and strove to engage and explore issues from an alternative point of view for which I was labeled and expunged.
For several days no one rose to support or to object of the position Adarkar and Larson about WAVES until Professor Francis X. Clooney, who had attended one day of the controversial conference, and had three positive observations about the participants. First, Clooney wrote, “the ‘general’ audience” was composed of interested and “intelligent ‘lay’ people, who came to learn from scholars”. He suggested that “this group should be encouraged” to attend more “scholarly presentations at future events”. In his opinion, this group can easily “separate heated rhetoric from good scholarship”. He also “met a good number of Indian scholars – either based in the USA or visiting from India – who have academic degrees, who seem well-versed in Sanskrit and in some areas of Sanskrit-learning, but who have not made the leap to the Western/USA academic world”.
He explained that besides his own presentation he “had to preside at a session where three scholars read learned papers which, though not framed in a way we would expect at the AAR, AAS, or AOS, showed good potential for engagement with contemporary scholarship and questions as customarily framed here.” He pointed out that the “three presenters were eager for this engagement”. However, he had to add that they were “a bit disappointed at the small number of ‘regular’ USA-based scholars present”. This lack of willingness in the part of Western scholars to interface with scholars from India as equals is of great concern and something that I had tried to bring to the attention of RISA in the past. Thirdly, Clooney mentioned that many conference attendees “seemed most concerned about education among Hindus in the USA – at the community level, the temple level, etc., and seem to have worthy ideals and plans for community education”. Clooney encouraged scholars “to accept invitations to attend WAVES” to stimulate interaction and engagement.
In response, George Thompson wrote that as “an earnest student of Vedic Studies,” he wanted “to know if there was at least one paper that dealt with Vedic studies in a serious way at this conference”. If not he suggested, we should “call this conference by some other, more accurate, name”, though he doesn’t indicate what that name should be. Subsequently about two dozen messages were submitted to this thread. Several scholars tried to offer nuanced analyses, but many comments were knee-jerk anti-Hindu responses and some were near hysterical tirades about the danger that fundamentalist Hindus living in the USA pose to the study of Hinduism. Along side this WAVES phobia were the unrelated but informative discussions of epigraphy and camcorders. The image comes to mind of that perennial, unchanging South Asian(ist) toiling away, but in a university office, relatively unconcerned while a battle rages on in a neighboring field.
I waited for a day, marveling at how Clooney’s email about WAVES expressed the exact opposite opinion than Larson and Adarkar. Such contradictory narratives are of interest, so I ventured into the conversation, knowing full well that my submissions tend to make waves.
In his evaluation of WAVES, Aditya Adarkar had written that the program was created with an “agenda that excluded minorities through non-representation” and that. “no mention was made of any of the other religions or their potential contribution.” Though there actually had been sessions on Sufism at WAVES, I wrote RISA to ask “why a conference titled, “World Association of Vedic Studies” should be obliged to discuss Islamic or Christian or Jewish, or for that matter even Sikh or Parsi contributions to Vedic Studies”. I suggested that it would be preposterous for scholars “to demand that a conference titled ‘Islamic Contributions to World Civilization’, sponsored by a group called The World Association of Quranic Studies (WAQS), should include panels and papers on the impact of the Vedas on Indian Islam”. I suggested that there was potentially rich material for this merger such as “’Dharmic Influences in Sufistic Islam in South Asia’ or ‘Bhakti Saints and Muslim Mystics: Indian’s Composite Spiritual Ethos’.” But I wasn’t quite “sure why a WAVES (VEDIC Studies) conference would be obliged to dwell on non-Vedic religions”. I reiterated that the impressions of Adarkar and Clooney were at total odds with each other.
That day, July 22, the emails began to pour in. David Freedholm a specialist on teaching world religions on the secondary level wrote to say that he had attended the WAVES conference, and “As with any conference (e.g. AAR), there was a mixed bag of papers presented, speeches given and perspectives represented”. Some of the papers he “appreciated and enjoyed” and others he did not. “Whatever their quality,” the papers that Freedholm heard “did not have the sinister agenda described by Prof. Adarkar”. He lists some of the sessions he attended–papers presented by “professors in religious studies or philosophy dept. in American universities”. He cites a panel called “Ahimsa in the Past and Present,” and discussions centered on “East-West Comparative Studies and interfaith dialogue”. He heard several papers on “Buddhism and even one from a Chinese professor entitled ‘Influence of Indian Sufism and Buddhism on Chinese Islam’.”
Freedholm defended the theme of the conference by explaining that “most of the papers were on Hindu texts, but that is hardly surprising in an association dedicated to Vedic studies”. He justifies this by saying, “I don’t think we are surprised when the Society of Biblical Literature focuses on [the] Bible”. Freedholm agreed with Clooney’s “breakdown of basic groups of people present at the conference” and urged scholars to interact more with the Hindu community, which may sometimes be “uncomfortable” but can “further dialogue between these two groups”. He warned, “to rigidly segregate these communities would increase the already strained feelings on both sides and lead to less rather than more understanding”.
Thomas Forsthoefel, who was “a conference attendee, presenter, and symposium co-organizer” asked to “chime in”, commenting that the “scholarly-lay dynamic at WAVES carries with it potential boons and difficulties”. He avers that “dialogue and exchange between genuine experts in the field and those less trained but nonetheless committed to their learning and development is a very good thing”. He writes perceptively, “So ‘blurring the lines’, in my view can be a good thing, and even needed, lest we have little or no connection with the real world”. But Like David Freedholm he realized that forging such connection is “not easy”. He described paper presentations he had attended and the topic of his own panel then mentioned, “Aditya’s deeper worry–the rhetoric of a resurgent or triumphal or even intellectually imperial Hinduism”. Forsthoefel suggests that this “does need careful consideration” and that he did have problems with “one or two of keynote addresses”. He thinks that though “celebrating the contributions of Hindu India to the world is rather salutary” scholars should “speak up” if they see shades of “territoriality, possessiveness, and control”.
Professor Joseph Schaller, who had also attended WAVES, mentioned, as had I, that it was “very interesting that two persons attending the same event could form such disparate impressions”. Schaller had been “reflecting rather intensely upon the divergence, sometimes of seemingly chasmic proportions, between those of us who are professional scholars in the academy versus lay or other practitioners of the traditions that we teach”. Professor Schaller echoed my sentiments when he wrote, “One of the genuine concerns/critiques that many participants raised was the construction and representation of Hinduism/s in the academy as opposed to the Hinduism/s lived and experienced by Hindus themselves”.
Schaller caught the essence of this concern about representation when he asserted that this problem is “a real issue, proportionate in some degree to the extent of divergence between these two forms”. His succinct phrasing of what he called the more “trenchant criticisms” described the sharp edges of the chasm between scholars of Hinduism and practicing Hindus who assert “that the scholarly representation of Hinduism [is] itself a manifestation of neo-colonial intellectual imperialism”. Unfortunately, beyond this insight into the problem, Schaller offered no solutions, and in fact found this assertion made by Hindus to be irritating. He exonerated himself with a genuflection to the meta-theories that have supposedly freed scholars from cultural prejudice over the past few decades. Because he was intellectually liberated by critical theory, he found the idea that the representation of Hinduism in academia is tinged with “neo-colonial imperialism” to be ironic and “grating”. After all, as he wrote to the scholars on RISA, “the socio-cultural dimensions of post-colonial and post-modern critical theory… have affected virtually all of us in the academy”. Nonetheless, he went on to support the more moderate positions and highlighted “the need for engagement [with practicing Hindus] rather than dismissiveness or worse, denigration and marginalization”.
I do not know the histories of most of the scholars whom I encountered on RISA, sometimes it is even difficult to know their university affiliation. There are certainly some wonderfully informed and witty people whom I would like to get to know and some with whom I am acquainted. However, I don’t know why Professor George Thompson is so angry. All I know of him is through his indefatigable posts on RISA, which are written with passion and conviction. Though he had an ax to grind and he at times attacked me and other scholars such as Ramdas Lamb and Bharat Gupt, he seems to be a serious scholar, if overly dedicated to his narrow point of view.
Without understanding the analogy, Thompson took umbrage with Freedholm’s reference that at Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting they shouldn’t be expected to study the Vedas. Thompson, in the usual flurry in which he writes, said comparing WAVES to SBL “is to utterly ignore the issue at point”. That point, he suggests is that a “WAVES conference may be much *more* like a Bob Jones University conference than an SBL conference”. He then makes a statement that reveals himself to RISA in an intimate manner,
“I would love the opportunity to interact with laypeople who are interested in Vedic, or more broadly in Indic, culture, and in fact I do this sort of outreach all the time. I regularly lecture at teacher training seminars and humanities council lecture series in my community. My neighbors know in fact that I am an Indophile.”
These words though endearing, caused me to pause, since so much of Thompson’s writings on RISA are critical of NRIs and he often makes an effort to politicize issues that should remain academic controversies. His understanding of Hinduism, even if based on firm grounding in Vedic Sanskrit, is not nuanced to contemporary issues. I wondered, given his penchant for criticizing Hinduism, what kind of “out reach” does he do? Does he tell his uniformed but captive audiences things such as he wrote in the next paragraph of this letter? If so, their understanding of Hinduism would be close to Al Qaeda. Thompson asserted that scholars must address the “cold-blooded fact” that “there is a very dangerous right-wing, reactionary, Hindu fundamentalist community, very actively at work in all of this.” He continued, “To pretend that such people don’t exist is the greatest of follies’. Asking for hard evidence, not just “platitudes” about the WAVES conference he cautioned that the “debate about “Hinduism” [should not] be framed by fanatical Hindu fundamentialists (sic)”.
Michael Witzel provided the URL for the “4th WAVES conference: ‘India’s Contributions And Influences in the World’, http://www.umassd.edu/indic/waves/prog_schedule.htm”, which he described as a “true omnium gatherum of anything related (or not) to Hinduism”. He did not consider it to actually have been “a *Vedic* conference. (WAVES = World Association for VEDIC Studies)”. He then contrasted WAVES to other Vedic Workshops he helped organize at Harvard, Kyoto, Leiden, at: http://iias.leidenuniv.nl/iias/agenda/3rdIVW/index.html”. He did announced that he had been invited to participate at the WAVES conference at “a ‘Plenary Lecture’ on something like: ‘Vedic Influences outside India,’ or ‘Relevance of Vedic thoughts for future Welfare of the World,’ but desisted after some deliberation”. He goes on to lament, “What is the use of ‘engaging’ people who firmly believe, e.g. that ‘Shakspeare stole from Kalisasa’?”
Witzel wrote that he has tried to reason with these people for “too long” and has wasted too much time already. If you visit his web page, http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/mwpage.htm, you will see that he devotes considerable time engaging, critiquing, and responding to the scholarship of those same Hindu intellectuals who organized and presented at WAVES. He does seem to fancy himself an activist scholar and often publishes op-ed pieces in Indian newspapers. Regardless of Witzel’s protestations to the contrary, he devotes plenty of time to what must be his favorite pastime, deconstructing various alternative Indo-centric analyses and sending those critiques off to the editor of Frontline.
Gerald Larson sent a letter to the list affirming his confidence that RISA-l was an “appropriate” venue to discuss such controversial issues. He concluded, “My hunch is that we’ll all be having to do more of this [discussion] in the days ahead for the sake of our field”. Larson’s hunch is right, this conversation must happen for the sake of the field. However, what happened on RISA was not a discussion of the issues in a safe intellectual environment. The scholars who attempted to engage the issues raised by WAVES were duly criticized for cavorting with Hindu fundamentalists. The needed debate could not succeed on RISA because a few scholars hunkered down and obstructed that possibility, at which point the moderator, with the support of Frank Conlon and the professor emeritus crowd, but over the protestations many others, ended the discussion about these vital, but seemingly taboo issues that must one day be aired, as Larson said, “for the sake of the field”.
June McDaniel sent in “Yet another WAVES response” explaining that she had “attended the meeting for two of the three days”. Referring to “the dark suspicions of the right wing, reactionary fundamentalists” McDaniel mentioned that “there were about 40 panels and plenary sessions, and not one on Hindu nationalism- nor did I hear the letters BJP once”. Professor McDaniel’s letter is important in this tale of biases because it provides a snapshot of the snuffing and scuttling of that much needed discussion, for which RISA, according to Professor Larson could provide the forum. Unfortunately, when McDaniel raised several very essential and level-headed questions about representations and “ownership”, she was subjected to ridicule. Professor McDaniel of the College of Charleston wrote,
I was concerned, though, at the implication that the practitioners here have “hijacked” the study of their religion from academics. Is religion something that only scholars may study, and that they possess? Hijacking is after all a form of theft. To my mind, if anybody were to “own” a religion, it would be the practitioners, the people who believe in it and live it, rather than the scholars who analyze it at a distance. I’m sure that the members all have different personal approaches, and I think that sharing ideas in this format is a good way to teach and learn. If we say that practitioners do not have the right to study their own religion in an academic format, and that only scholars can, then we run into problems with that ever-popular topic, colonialism…
To a casual reader of the RISA list, it would seem that Professor George Thompson has little to do except purview the messages and when one concerns the politicization of Indic studies, he quickly writes in to influence the discourse or, if it is getting too interesting, to silence the debate. Naturally, as soon as Dr. McDaniel’s sympathetic post appeared, Thompson wrote in to say, “avoidance of the word ‘nationalism and the letters BJP does not disguise the fact that many bad scholars with atrocious political views also attended this meeting. We can all deal with that as we see fit, but to ignore it, in my opinion, would be irresponsible”.
For the next week I was out of town at conference sponsored by Tibet House and the Infinity Foundation called “Global Renaissance”, that focused on the Indic traditions such Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. I did not check email while at the conference that was held in upstate New York at an estate owned by the Tibet House. Upon my return I found the emails described above, plus very similar, but less tactful ones that were sent in to critique the conference that I had just attended. Needless to say, the hate filled onslaught, though shocking, was not really a surprise, considering the RISA forum is not always a friendly place for Hindus or for scholars with deep sympathy and spiritual connections with Hinduism, such as Professor Ramdas Lamb, who wrote, on July 25, to discuss the “various comments regarding the WAVES conference and to concur with June McDaniel’s helpful response”. Ramdas wrote,
Scholars tend to have an outside view of what they study, while practitioners tend to have an inside view. I believe the anthropological concepts of etic and emic come to play here. Each can be good in its own context; each can also be extremely distorted in its narrowness; neither is inherently more accurate than the other. As Gerry Larson pointed out, our field of study is bettered by discussion of these issues. If we limit who or what approach can join in to the point that participants in a tradition have no voice, then we will prevent ourselves from gaining a fuller understanding. I attended the conference several years ago that was probably somewhat similar to the WAVES conference. It was the International Ramayana Conference, held that year in Trinidad, and most of the audience were Carib-Indian Hindus, not scholars. Some of the presenters were more devotees than non-scholars as well, and there was clearly a pro-Ramayana, pro-Hindu atmosphere. This did not prevent some good intellectual interchange from occurring, and I met a variety of good scholars from around the world there. I also met many lay Hindus who were inspired by the conference to a gain a more scholarly understanding of Hinduism and the Ramayana. IT was an enriching experience, and I think everyone seemed to have gained from the process.
Shrinivas Tilak, member of RISA wrote, “In a recent communication Michael Witzel invited comparison between the three Vedic workshops and three WAVES conferences”. Tilak regretted that he had not been able attend all of these workshops, including the recent WAVES conference. And added, referring to Ramdas Lamb’s comments, “Ideally, I would have liked to attend both: the former for explanation of the Veda, the latter for understanding it; the former for an etic, the latter for an emic perspective”.
Immediately, George Thompson wrote in to pedantically chastise his colleagues for not agreeing with him, which he figured was because they didn’t understand him, not because scholars such as McDaniels and Lamb had the intelligence to form their own opinions. Professor Thompson wrote, “What I’m saying is not complicated. Why do many list members continue to insist on misunderstanding it?” Thompson writes from a defensive stance, with a dash of anger and a smidge of arrogance. To get the feel of his approach, I have reproduced his letter in full below.
I will say it again: I have no problem with scholars and non-scholars, especially if they are all of good will, coming together to share their understandings of Hinduism, the Vedas, etc. Ask my students. No, ask my Indian students, in particular. They will tell you what they think of me.
This indirect but repeated claim that somehow I am denying a voice to the participants of a tradition, in preference to the scholars who study it, is nonsense, no matter how much it is mechanically repeated.
What I am urging the members of this list to do is to consider the consequences of sharing panels with, conference discussions with, accepting funding from, and giving academic legitimacy to, people who have profoundly racist, nationalistic, and ultimately violent views about Hinduism. Look, I could name these people, but the last time I did that this list’s committee of political correctness decided that my posts were ad hominem attacks. So, instead I ask you all to do a little work on this for yourselves.
There are people who presented papers at the recent WAVES conference who have publicly praised the assassin of Gandhi, for example. Others have made physical threats against scholars who have challenged their revisionist fantasies that India is the cradle of all civilization. Well? What to say about that? Ramdas Lamb? June McDaniel? Joseph Schaller? Please. Speak up.
As for this tired old emic vs etic cliché. The philology that I do encompasses both. The idea that you can do an emic analysis of Vedic without knowing Vedic, either etically of emically, is, well, as a scholar, it is utterly blasph–emic to me. And let me remind you, the *only* access to Old Vedic that we have is philological. If you want to talk about the Rgveda as a scholar you must know how to read it
As would be expected, Geoffrey Cook chimed in to support George Thompson. These two gentlemen are peas in a pod, as far as the manner in which they interact on the internet and the subjects they support on RISA. Referring to me and then to Professor Bharat Gupt, Cook claims that on another internet forum he had “agreed with Dr. Gupt that we in the West do not give Indian trained scholars — or for that matter — knowledgeable laymen their due. However, Cook adds a caveat that it “unfortunately, is a politically charged time in studies on South Asia”. He implicates his colleagues who attended WAVES, and of course those who defended it on RISA,
“Many of these individuals have extracuricullar (sic) political agendas as George has brought out. Some of these agendas are quite ugly. Because of such, it is hard to hold meaningful debates, but when we do we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge conclusions or data we feel are cluttered with less than objective narratives”.
Reluctantly, but with clarity and informed conviction, Ramdas Lamb sent in a brief rebuttal, commenting that he had “just read George Thompson’s message”, which he felt “apparently is partially in response to” his email. Ramdas, referring to Thompson’s letter, wrote, “I guess he asked me to ‘speak up,’ although in response to what, I am not sure”. Lamb did not attend the WAVES conference, so his comments were in regards to “the useful role… that believers and/or participants in a tradition play in providing insight for scholars into the nature of that tradition”. Lamb has been a long time student of India, is fluent in Hindi, has lived over a decade with Ramananda babas, who are sort of subaltern sadhus. He is very tuned in to the subtleties of Hinduism, in a dirt under the fingernails, grassroots interface that makes Vedantic scholars in their arm chairs look quite detached from the ground realities of practicing Hindus.
Ramdas wrote, “Whether or not the concept of etic and emic is a ‘tired old…cliché’ or not, it is useful, general concept, especially for those who think that scholars can know everything necessary about a tradition (I know many scholars who think like this).” He agreed with Thompson “that many scholars have hidden political agendas”, but he broadened the spectrum of political constructs that range “from religious fundamental leanings to strong Marxist ideologies”. He concluded with the comment, “I think of the [RISA] list as a forum for dialogue and discussion, not combat. Am I missing something here? Do I misunderstand the purpose of this list?”
RISA is intended to be a forum for dialogue and not combat. Unfortunately, this is not possible because of the self-appointed gatekeeper role of certain scholars who presume that they can terminate controversial topics and silence those with whom they disagree by labeling them “fascist”. Ultimately this works to discourage debate and a forum like RISA becomes a place where such exchanges cannot take place, exchanges that, as Larson said, must be encouraged “for the sake of the field”. The indifference of the vast majority of three hundred plus lurking RISA members who do not wade in to defend or condemn their colleagues adds to the isolation scholars may feel and the hesitancy to “wade in” least they be attacked.
This hesitancy to speak up was poignantly pointed out in an off-line correspondence with June McDaniel later in August when I wrote to thank her for the knowledgeable description of the WAVES conference. I told her “I … regretted that some members of the RISA list consider what you had written to be ‘contaminated’.” I added, “I am sorry that balanced and objective scholars such as yourself have to be subjected to the agni pariksha [test of fire] just to be able to dispassionately discuss such interesting if controversial topics”.
Professor McDaniel replied, “I find it rather depressing that there is so much name-calling among scholars on RISA”. This threat of labeling is effective to silence that debate, which is essential to the health of the field. McDaniel made this obvious when she wrote, “I decided not to respond to the implications that I was a fundamentalist, nationalist, or whatever, but I would note to you that I am not a Hindu nationalist”. She added, perceptively and a bit painfully, “Being a practitioner has nothing to do with nationalism, but it is certainly an instantaneous assumption on this list”. She concluded that in the process of name-calling, the “average Hindus are simply ignored”. Once burned, twice shy…. scholars such as June McDaniel who could offer sympathetic perspectives to a long over due debate central to the topic of this very high profile discussion group are silenced by political correctness.
Luis Gonzalez-Reimann objected to McDaniel’s statement that denying practitioners “the right to study their own religion in an academic format” is a form of colonialism. Since I quote extensively from his letter in my reply below, I will not reproduce his in its entirety here, though it deserves to be read. Gonzalez-Reimann wrote that the chasm between practitioners of Hinduism and scholars “has nothing to do with colonialism”. His quite long and well reasoned piece can be accessed in the RISA archives at http://www.sandiego.edu/pipermail/risa-l/2002-July/000545.html, and is worth reading because it presents, in a non aggressive but self confident manner, the everyday assumptions of RISA scholars concerning topics such as the Aryan migration.
Ten days and two dozen messages after the “second WAVES” thread began, amid bytes of accusations of fascism and denials of neo-colonialism on a forum dedicated to discussing issues of significance to the study of Religions in South Asia, Professor Frank Colon made an effort to stymie the discourse, a role he often plays on RISA especially when things are just getting interesting, if controversial. I surmise due to his many years of serving as the moderator of the H-ASIA discussion group, he naturally feels this duty, almost like a Dharmic calling, to guide internet discussions away from controversies.
Frank Conlon commended Luis Gonzalez-Reimann for hitting “the nail on the head”. However, he was afraid the effort would not be enough to succeed “in ‘removing doubts’ for everyone who has been flogging this thread”. He added, parenthetically, “(maybe gumming it would be more appropriate)”, expressing his yucky distaste of the emic/etic WAVES discussion. In this, it was not apparent whose doubts had been removed, those of the academicians who had exonerated themselves through their mutually assumed familiarity with post-modern and post-colonial and post-occi-centric theories, or the “practicing Hindus” who are still running from this post to that post to temple pillar, seeking more respect in the representation of their traditions? Though no one else on RISA commented, it wasn’t clear to me how discussing a recognized problem, central to the field, could be seen as gumming it up. If Frank intended to mean that discussing the topic further was less like flogging a dead horse and more like toothlessly chewing on a lifeless mass, the metaphor is still unclear because this vital discussion had just barely begun.
Frank wanted to help move RISA past the “rhetoric”, and wondered if the list really “can move on” which was at odds with what Gerry Larson had suggested two weeks earlier, that RISA was the perfect forum for such a discussion. In my opinion the “rhetoric” can’t “move on” until academicians seriously and humbly consider issues of agency and voice. Yet, to halt that debate Professor Conlon proffered an obscure reference to “Sam Campbell” that perhaps by its sheer disconnected inapplicability helped to curtail more discussion, such as the potential a scholarly exchange between June McDaniels and Luis Gonzalez-Reimann might hold, or an opportunity to contrast the perspectives of someone such as Ramdas Lamb, who is a sympathetic scholar (etic) to Hinduism with those of George Thompson, who approaches the field as an informed outsider.
Why both June and Ramdas, as well as many other RISA scholars are hesitant to enter into these dynamic if controversial debates is not only because of the gatekeeper syndrome personified by Cook and Thompson, but because respected professors emeritus frown down upon expanding the perimeters of such discussions. Though Frank called them “admirable” and “earnest concerns” his allusion to Sam Campbell “eating honey in the fog” was obscure to all except 19th century naturalists, and even then, what does it have to do with the real worries that Hindus have about academic treatments of their faith, which was after all the topic under discussion?
With this effort, the thread gummed its discredited way out of RISA, as June McDaniel, whose positive comments about WAVES had originally elicited the frenzy, sent in a note titled “An ending to the WAVES discussion?” wherein she passes on a message from “BhuDev Sharma, the organizer”. Sharma had asked, “that people who are dissatisfied with the WAVES lectures or speakers should contact him directly”. She adds, “I think that the suggestion to bring the discussion off-line is a good one. It has taken up much time on the list already”. Unfortunately, avoidance of important issues, and the discomfort addressing them may cause, won’t make them go away.
To slam the door shut on the Second WAVE thread, the self appointed gatekeeper, George Thompson sent in one last message. He wrote cryptically, look “what happens when you go away for a few days. You say something controversial, but honest and true, and this is what ensues”. I presume that whatever he had read on RISA, in his absence I had read very differently when I checked my email after I had been away for a few days. Thompson, agreeing with Conlon wrote, ”now it is nicely confirmed. Time to move on”. But with added insult to those who thought the thread deserved serious academic attention, Thompson concluded, “now it seems that the RISA list itself is contaminated…”.
In a good soap opera or Bollywood drama, there is a suspenseful lull or perhaps a dance routine just before the climax. So too, for a few days RISA went back to the usual fare announcing conferences and calling for papers until August 3rd when Pankaj Jain, a graduate student from Columbia sent in this report of the Indic Traditions conference. The simple email submitted by Prankaj was similar to other such announcements replete with the URL, though this one set the hounds loose. Pankaj wrote,
“In these days of too much noise and too little impact, one really feels refreshed when one gets a chance to attend a conference which is a true GYAAN YAGYA. I had a rare opportunity to attend last week a conference at a retreat near Woodstock, NY, of about forty scholars of diverse disciplines across Indic traditions. Most of the papers presented were truly outstanding.
“This event was organized by Prof. Robert Thurman of Columbia University and The Infinity Foundation. Among the many eminent scholars were George Cardona, Ashok Aklujkar, Arindam Chakravarti, Laurie Patton, Richard King, Arvind Sharma, Ryuichi Abe, Madhu Kishwar, Purushotama Billimoria, and many others.
“The four days of the conference were divided into four gates of a Mandala: Society, History, Outer knowledge and Inner Sciences. All the papers can also be found at http://www.infinityfoundation.com/indic_colloq/Schedule-Participants.htm”
First like a little drum roll that was promptly forgotten, there was a message from Malcolm Nazareth, Center for Interfaith Encounter in St. Clould, MN thanking “the Infinity Foundation for generously making the papers and abstracts universally available”. Then came a spiraling succession of messages that made the earlier WAVES discussion seem very tame and overly polite.
Jo Perry wrote a very biting critique of the Infinity Foundation and especially Rajiv Malhotra the founder. He was highly critical and did not mince his words. Perry wrote that “Indic traditions” is “not really what the name implies [because that] group does not recognize all Indic traditions, but focuses on certain aspects of Hindu tradition(s), attempting to make them (seem) unified beyond historical evidences”. He continued, “a clear political agenda– energetically anti-socialist, pro-Hindu nationalist– has motivated this largely Diaspora Indian effort, backed by Malhotra’s munificence to and through his Infinity Foundation and by the sympathies of others, scholars and amateurs and those in between, with this general set of beliefs about the social and cultural history of the subcontinent and, according to them, its monocultural origins”. He then reminds the readers that Malhotra’s presence at a meeting of the American Academy of Religions (AAR) meeting had been negatively assessed on RISA the previous year. After a few more swipes at Rajiv Malhotra, Perry concludes, “The usual issue of free access and interchange of views vs naivete about not very hidden but clearly exclusionary political agendas comes to the fore.”
Pankaj Jain was the first to respond and went straight to the problematic aspect of Perry’s critique of “A unique conference on Indic Traditions”. Jain lamented that “Rather than bothering to read any of the papers presented at the Colloquium I had mentioned, it is unfortunate that Mr. Perry chose to discuss about a person”. He then forwarded the URL for the “The Four-Gate Mandala site is at: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/indic_mandala_frameset.htm” and urged scholars to go there and “draw one’s own conclusions”. He also told the scholars on RISA that the “widespread following” of many of these points of view “amongst Indians worldwide… cannot be denied”.
Messages began pouring in on the Indic Traditions conference, some condemning the participants without any proof if their assumed fascistic connections and others defending the event, with plenty of references. At least on scholar, Robert Zydenbos in Germany also carried on a personal email discussion (not on the RISA-list) with Rajiv Malhotra. In his RISA messages, Zydenbos was particularly critical of the NRI community and stated, ”that whatever the diaspora community says about ‘Indian culture’, ‘Hinduism’ etc. must not be uncritically accepted — irrespective of vocal assertiveness … about ’insiders’ vs. ‘outsiders’ that aims at switching off critical thought and silencing possible evaluation in an attempt at monopolising the flow of information and thereby the shaping of public opinion”. Strong words, but what Zydenbos failed to see is that those same words are used by these diasporic Hindus describing the monopoly of the flow of information that negatively influences public opinion about their religion, Hinduism, and their ancestral country, India. Though Zydenbos said that he had the “deepest contempt” for what he called a “kind of intellectual apartheid” his attitude about Malhotra and the WAVES conference runs counter to that conviction.
David Freedholm responding to Perry et al, wrote that it “was unfortunate that we have here again another personal attack against Mr. Malhotra who is not a member of RISA-L and is not afforded a chance to respond”. Freedholm defends the Infinity Foundation and notes “the dismissive tone” in the RISA messages. Dave pointed out the “the only intolerance and exclusionary agendas that I see are represented in posts like [Joe Perry’s]”. Considering the personal attacks, Dave questioned the “wisdom of carrying on this thread in this forum’, something that perhaps I should have pondered before wading into the debate again. Our messages passed in the mail.
A message from Gerald Larson also passed mine. Larson continued to warn his colleagues about the danger of their work being co-opted by groups with “chauvinist” intensions. Perhaps in the early nineties the popularity of Larson’s work on Sanskrit texts among the Indian-American community caused some of his colleagues to criticize him for being too friendly with the Hindu Revivalists. There was an article that mentioned him written by Lisa McLean and other critiques of his book Indian’s Agony Over Religion, which may have caused Professor Larson to turn hard in the other direction to diffuse the criticism. Larson continued to assert that the “RISA listserv is an excellent medium for shedding critical light and open debate on the issues involved”. Tucked in among all these warnings and debates was an announcement concerning nominations and the election to the “Hinduism Group Steering Committee” that is crucial the representation of Hinduism at the AAR conference because this group evaluates “panel and paper proposals for the annual meeting.” It also works to control the flow of information on RISA-l.
After a week in upstate New York I returned home to my computer. As I saved all those RISA messages, regarding the “fundamentalists and fascists” who had organized the WAVES conference I felt I had to bring up the topic of bias and labeling one more time. Little did I know as I wrote it, that it would reach RISA scholars at the same time more ominous messages were being sent out to alert scholars about an even more dangerous intellectual enterprise to be guarded against, the Indic Colloquium I had just attended. Nonetheless, though I was sure that my comments would evoke more hate mail, on the 5th of August I submitted a long message, titled “Scholarship about India (was: WAVES)” written while thinking about the sad state of affairs on RISA.
I pointed out the double standard that was so obvious in the biased discussion of the WAVES conference, which was controversial only because it was organized by Hindus and those with notions sympathetic to Indic traditions. I prayed at the beginning of my long message, fully knowing mine would be an unpopular position and I would probably be attacked, “May the muse be with me as I make another foray where angels also ‘demons/asuras’ fear to tread…” I continued, “Recently a controversial discussion about WAVES generated a flurry of heated emails, that was quickly pronounced dead, nothing more to discuss… ‘emic vs etic clichés’ no interest, more ‘flogging’ or ‘gumming’ this thread is like ‘eating honey in the fog’, and has ‘nothing to do with colonialism’. Case closed”. In my message, I thanked June McDaniel for her perceptive comments about the ownership or possession of scholarship about Hindus and I quoted from Luis Gonzalez-Reimann’s letter sent in response to hers. He had written,
“So studying religions in a modern-day “academic format” should ideally not be limited by absolute beliefs on the part of the scholar concerning such things as the “revealed truth” of certain traditions or scriptures; the “inerrancy” of a religious leader, preacher or guru; or the absolute supremacy of one tradition over another. Although a lot can certainly be achieved under such circumstances, there are boundaries that are difficult, if not impossible, to cross. It all depends on what aspect of the tradition one is studying, and from what angle. This, of course, applies to every religion: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, etc.’
I then asked to be allowed to “paraphrase the above” and I wrote, partly in irony, and partly to show the flipsides of these debates use the same frames of references.
“So studying religions in a modern-day “academic format” should ideally not be limited by absolute beliefs on the part of the scholar concerning such things as the “revealed truth” of certain academic traditions or previously agreed upon a scholarly analyses of scriptures; the “inerrancy” of a historical theoretical tradition, the paradigm of a famous Indologist or favored professor; or the absolute supremacy of one scholarly point of view over another. Although a lot can certainly be achieved under such circumstances, there are boundaries that are difficult, if not impossible, to cross. It all depends on what paradigm one chooses to use when studying the tradition, and from what angle. This, of course, applies to every field of research: Indology, Philology, Archaeology, etc.”
I quoted Luis Gonzalez-Reimann who “also asked if as scholars we are ‘willing to challenge -and maybe change- one’s assumptions as research advances?” Luis Gonzalez-Reimann added, “In scientific/scholarly research these assumptions are usually called working hypotheses, and they are subject to change depending on the research results”. I asked the RISA list, “If this is the practice, why when some new research challenges some of the academic ‘assumptions’ based on ‘deeply held’ theoretical ‘beliefs’, is it so difficult ‘to discard them when data that contradicts them surfaces?” I added, “many discoveries and alternative perspectives especially from the emic crowd, automatically provoke ‘intense personal psychological conflict or a defensive -often aggressive- reaction ‘from scholarly circles’.” Here is another quote from that long message which was more about the negative bias in the discourse about Hinduism than any one particular conference,
“There are some scholars and others who are working to undo what they consider to be prejudices and are attempting to untangle entrenched paradigms. Hence you have Swamy Tyagananda’s critique (which appeared in the journal EVAM) of Jeff Kripal’s “poorly translated”, sensationally homo-erotically interpreted biography about a “pedophilic” Ramakrishna. Also such efforts as went into the special Indic Traditions edition of “Education About Asia” (Winter 2001), where my article “The Clandestine Curriculum: ‘Temple of Doom’ in the Classroom” proposed strategies to help high school teachers make India relevant to their students, suggesting ways to resist essentializing cultural differences or reifying the exotic as the norm. I suggested that by contextualizing social oppression and sexism within the discourse of human rights, a teacher could relate inequities in India to similar problems in Western society, and thereby avoid stereotyping class-based discrimination and gender violence as uniquely Hindu. I argued that using sati to narrate Hinduism is tantamount to viewing Christianity through the lens of witch burning in medieval Europe.
But this approach is often resisted by educators who claim that it would “minimize South Asia’s very real social problems”. There is massive resistance and red flags go up, if a scholar such as myself proposes that educators should be more sympathetic. I find it pathetic that there is such rancor and ill will. It is very discouraging. The field has been so terribly politicized.
I have been told that before I open my mouth to mention fascinating archaeological finds such as Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, and other “Indus Valley” sites located in what is now geographically India… that I should first, before even saying the controversial words “Sarasvati River” … that I must say, clearly, “I am against genocide in Gujarat”. I was even told that I should first say, “I do not nor have I ever supported cutting unborn babies from the bellies of Muslim mothers.” It makes me shudder. Dear God, what horror… I should just go hide under my bed and play dead. I can’t even mention the fact that Harappan/Indus Valley sites, based on important research conducted over the last few decades, are more aptly seen as a part of a greater Indus/Sarasvati culture, because many more sites have been found to the east of the Indus. A discussion of these sites excavated by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) causes critics to claim that the ASI has been high-jacked by Hindutva, even when the ASI’s research is corroborated by the work that has been done along the Ghaggar River in Pakistan by Prof. Mughal, who can not be said to be a Hindu Nationalist. But just to simply use the phrase, “Indus/Sarasvati” triggers a knee-jerk response. Scholars are obliged to go through agni pariksha time and again, regardless of the cold hard archaeological data that there is to discuss. Doesn’t matter. Before speaking about terra cotta seals, bathing ghats, uniform sized bricks, excavated in Gujarat and Rajasthan and Hariyana, the speaker first has to appear before the House on Un-Indological Activities and swear that they have never or would never murder minorities.
I must say that such a required caveat, stifles what should be a lively discussion about an interesting topic. Even so, among many scholars of Indian (South Asian) studies…. you are painted black if you do not ground yourself in accepted theories such as the Aryan Invasion/Migration, or if you look at the medieval period through a lens that includes culture and religion, as well as “accepted” approaches such as economics and government. <snip>
This political problem has paralyzed the field, truly gummed it up. It is frustrating because those that demand the agni pariksha hold the reigns of academia. Scholars are cowed into silence if they see certain correlations in data that may be frowned upon by their outspoken colleagues who see politics in every archaeological dig or every new or alternative interpretation. These self-appointed tenured gatekeepers refuse to discuss the alternative perspectives because (1) they had already analyzed the Vedas, Upanishads, Indian historiography, and tucked away all that can be said [“ref. to my work (1987, 1991)” etc.]. And. most importantly, (2) any consideration of “alternative interpretations” is automatically “contaminated, equated with hate and racism, which will undoubtedly lead to fascism in India that will facilitate the resulting holocaust of the non-Hindu minorities” … all laid at the feet of the dissenting scholar(s). Well, that sure can put a damper on the discourse…. so much for talking about the granary at Lothal…. never mind looking at the curriculum at Nalanda, or ruins of a Jain temple, or the archaeology of Hastinapur, or images of Saagar/Samundra in the Rg Veda, much less emic or etic, or anything having to do with Hindu (or Buddhist, or Jain) community identities in any time period, period.
There are many excellent scholars who are stymied and effectively shut up, because they can not stand the heat, the very real personal and professional implications they must overcome are staggering… if they dare to argue against the dominate paradigms.
In that email, I cut and pasted comments from the messages of several scholars, many of which were discussed earlier in this essay, such as George Thompson who wrote asking us to “consider the consequences of sharing panels with […] people who have profoundly racist, nationalistic, and ultimately violent views about Hinduism”. And another comment from Luis Gonzalez-Reimann: “This is not a question of West and East, us and the other, the center and the periphery, or the colonizer and the colonized; although there are quite a few people out there intent on making it look as if it were, and others who seem to keep taking the bait.” I pointed out that this approach “dismisses dissent and chides scholars for even entertaining the dissenters”. I lamented about the “sad state of the field” and ended my letter with the caveat required of scholars who take an alternative approach to the study of India, my version of the agni-pariksha,
“I think the horrible riots in Gujarat, the murders, rapes, looting, arson, were despicable, inhuman, horrible beyond belief…. dark, sinister, evil, and destructive. All of us who appreciate India and Indic thought recoiled and felt a dark blackness over our hearts and minds…. it was disgusting and disheartening… a thousand souls cruelly, ruthlessly murdered. Will my prayers for the evolution of humanity go unanswered? Such horrors, such tragedies shake me to the core.
“If I thought that talking about terra cotta seals found in Rakhigarhi could contribute to the death of another human being, I would put away the marvelously interesting and well documented books by respected scholars such as B. B. Lal and I would never mention the Sarasvati River again. But I think it is a huge intellectual leap to make such accusations…. and they are inappropriate, politically motivated, and mal-intended.
I ended this dangerous letter with a request and a prayer, “Can we please allow a few more players on to the field, or is the study of ‘Religions in South Asia” an exclusive academic club where the etic is allowed to bat but the emic is kept out of the stadium (Ivory Tower) altogether?” I added, “I fear neither muses, nor angels, nor demons nor asuras can protect me now!!!”
This protest letter was written before I read Mr. Perry’s critique of Infinity Foundation and the many emails that echoed the negative sentiments about the recent Indic Colloquium. Reading Perry’s letter just before sending the above to RISA, I added a PS to the bottom that Perry’s negative message, “certainly makes me aware of how far I have stuck my neck out”. I urged RISA “to go to the ‘Mandala’ web site and read some of the articles there, submitted by serious scholars, on such topics as metallurgy …etc”. I suggested that if they look through the articles on this site, they would “see far more discussions about synthesis and pluralism than exclusivist ‘monocultural origins’. See: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/indic_mandala_frameset.htm”.
One member of the list, John Noyce did just that and immediately wrote that though the “ideological disputes are fascinating” he had a “very pleasant surprise when [he] checked out the Mandala website. There’s some excellent material there […] Some useful bibliographies too”.
Nonetheless, this latest feeding frenzy against “practitioners” who are industrious enough to organize conferences coming on the heels of the anti-Hindu messages concerning WAVES, gave one the feeling that this topic of discussion on RISA had reached a critical mass. The rabid, repeatedly anti-Hindu, especially anti-modern Hindu messages that RISA scholars felt safe to submit was startling. This is especially alarming since it causes more sympathetic scholars to dread making contributions because they are often chewed up and spat out. I suggested another topic of interest, “Sufism– Hindu Muslim Syncretism in South Asia”, I wrote,
“I have noticed on this RISA list, which is dedicated to ‘Religions in South Asia’, that there is very little discussion about Indian Islam. The rich traditions of Sindh and the wonderful syncretistic poems of Shah Latif of Bhit, like those of Kabir call on God as the beloved, as Ram, as Allah… like the Bauls of Bengal…. so many traditions… so many saints who transcended contesting liturgies and manifested the transcendent in their pluralism. These saints were grounded, or should I say floating in bliss, in two seemingly irreconcilable traditions, embracing complex multiple identities. There were and are many such mystics. poets, musicians, all across South Asia, and among the much disdained (according to this egroup) South Asian diaspora. Is there anyone on this RISA list who is doing work on poet saints such as Shah Latif who merged Islam and Hinduism and whose poetry still infuses Sindh? I do think this is far more interesting a topic than the incredible number of posts that were contributed to the thread about human sacrifice in Hinduism…. as if that were so integral a component that it was indispensable in understanding India. Whereas, an important discussion during which RISA scholars were confronting, relevant, contemporary, central issues, such as why South Asianist scholars leap to condemn diasporic practitioners, is considered taboo and gummy. Just what is going on in South Asian Studies? And why doesn’t anyone care?
The message had several more paragraphs about a Sufi family I had met in Larkana, Sindh Pakistan, and then I asked the members of RISA if this wasn’t “more interesting and RELEVANT than human sacrifice in Hinduism?” I finally asked that controversial question that had been bugging me for years, “Why do so many scholars hate practitioners of Hinduism?” Of course none of those hundreds of scholars on RISA answered, but the few that did said that I was biased, not them. I concluded the message about Sufism,
“Why does someone like Abdul Kalam cause members on RISA to make derisive comments about his screwed up identity… isn’t he a latter day Kabir, a Shah Latif with a modernist twist? Why hate him because he is too Hindu? Why hate Rajiv Malhotra because he has dedicated his life and his savings to bringing a more positive, less caste based, less sexist, less primitive, less irrational, less yes I will use that word Eurocentric approach to India and Hinduism.
Jonas Hart, a graduate student from the University of Colorado in Boulder replied to the list, “I’m glad you’ve raised this point”. He explained, “While so many have decried the pro-Hindu slant of conferences, talks, etc., this list has been virtually devoid of anything not Hindu”. He concluded, it is “amusing but sad to see how academics are so quick to point fingers, but rarely at themselves”. After that there ensued a lot more finger pointing, and because I had reopened that Pandora’s box of biases on RISA, or that can of worms, many of those fingers were pointing at me. George Thompson wrote in to chastise RISA for resurrecting a dead thread. His letter is full of invectives and insults that should have stimulated other scholars to respond, but no one wrote in to chastise him. Thompson wrote, in very ugly unkind words,
“Well, I had decided to walk on by that lonely graveyard of dead threads without any more of what you rightly call ‘just words.’ But this thread has magically come to life again [over and over again the list gets messages about yet another ‘unique’ conference sponsored by you-know-who]. No, I’m not going to waste my time on first year grad school concepts like this ’emic’ vs ‘etic’ thing that has been running through this thread like a little hard-to-catch rodent. No, I spend too much time as it is already explaining perfectly simple things to my students. I shouldn’t have to do that on a so-called scholarly list as well. [….]
The point is that both conferences were sponsored to lend academic credibility to the sponsors. Instant credibility by association, as it were, calculatingly bought and paid for by the sponsors. No doubt we will see them again at the next AAR conference, and so forth.
I do not appeal to these sponsors and their puppets, pit bulls, surrogates, or friends. They don’t listen, in any case. No, my appeal is to the scholars of genuine good will who are being used by them, or who might be tempted to be used by them. I think that collaborating with these people is a BAD IDEA, as recent history has shown. Is that clear enough now? Now, I will go back to work.
Richard Mahoney from New Zealand agreed “that caution is required”, and for background information, referred RISA subscribers to an Indology list-serve totally unrelated to Malhotra or the Indic Colloquium, <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/INDOLOGY/>. He listed several topics, “`Eurocentrism in Philosophy Departments’ , `De-Essentializing the Eastern Wisdom’, `How to Fund Indological Research’” and suggested a “quick way to locate all of these threads is to search for `Rajiv Malhotra’.” Since all of the three topics were of interest and I wondered about Mahoney’s suggestion I checked it out and found not only nothing sensational, but even doing a search using Malhotra’s name, brought up nothing alarming.
I wrote to Professor Mahoney, via the list, but I was starting to get a bit peeved that there were so many assumptions and so little documentation. Perhaps I wrote with the same bile that Frank Colon had felt a few months earlier when he had disagreed with the direction of the debate. I was actually appalled that such flimsy connections drawn between unassociated groups were allowed to stand unchallenged by RISA scholars. In a short and somewhat peeved message, titled, “Indology: a BAD IDEA” I responded to a few of the recent nasty emails about Hindus at conferences, mentioning that George Thompson had warned that “collaborating with these people is a BAD IDEA”, with Mahoney seconding the opinion and no one protesting such racism.
I asked Mahoney, to “please articulate [his] objections”, asking, “Are insinuations all that are required?” I enquired if he had investigated the “Mandala” site, and if so, what he had found “there that is objectionable?” I suggested that he had not looked at the Mandala site and was basing his “critique on yahoo groups such as [his] suggested link?” I had clicked over to that site and found nothing sensational, only messages titled:
I conceded that I did not locate the topics Mahoney had implicated in his critique, but added that topics such as `Eurocentrism in Philosophy Departments’ and `De-Essentializing the Eastern Wisdom’ were “certainly topics central to most contemporary treatments of Indology”. I hoped “such discussions remain relevant” even though they were often ponderous and usually painful for many scholars on RISA.
At the website suggested by Mahoney, I didn’t find any references on `How to Fund Indological Research’, but told Mahoney if he located “some good sources about how to promote the study of India, be it Bhakti or Buddha, please let me know”. After all the dismissiveness about insiders and outsiders on RISA, the mission statement of the Indology yahoo groups seemed relevant, so I quoted it, “Designed as a forum for discussions between working scholars and others with a serious interest in the field of classical Indian studies”. I mentioned that this “seemed like an inclusive approach… which is often lacking in other e-forums about Religions in South Asia”.
I also took Mahoney’s advice and did a search using Malhotra’s name but came up with nothing about murdering minorities or mono-cultural triumphalism. I informed RISA-l that among items that came up after doing the suggested search was “a grant given to Prof. DP Agrawal whose institute in Almora studies traditional knowledge systems such as metallurgy”. I asked the scholars who had sent in these presumptive, unverifiable links, “What sensationally condemning threat to the existence of Indology and the study of religions in South Asia am I looking for, for which ‘caution is required’? As they used to say, ‘Where’s the beef’?”
The on-going discussion generated corollary topics and without thinking that I might be expelled from the list for engaging several of these topics simultaneously, I wrote more than six emails in two days. Each email specifically addressed an issue raised by scholars on RISA. In these messages I defended the participants at the Indic Colloquium and addressed several of the problems raised by others, as well as providing information about the conference, more about labeling, and about biases that keep tying things up on RISA. Geoffrey Cook accused me of defamation for saying that several authors and scholars whose works are published on “SACW are Marxists”. Cook exclaimed, “That is a bit much, & smacks of McCarthyism. This is nothing short of defamation”.
I responded that it was not defamation to mention that a scholar uses “Marxist analysis”. I was actually surprised that Cook would think the word Marxist was an insult, since he himself on numerous occasions has claimed to be “left of center” which is a concept based on the dualism of Marxism. I reminded Dr. Cook that, in India “most scholars and journalists who [use Marxist analysis], do so proudly, viz. K.N. Panikkar, Romila Thapar, Sumit Sakar, Irfan Habib, Praful Bidwai, R.S. Sharma, etc., etc.” I quickly added a caveat, that “In this list, only Pannikar, Habib, Sharma, and Bidwai are self-avowed Communists, which is their right, and quite common among many educated, upper-class Indians.” I explained to Cook who should have known this, that in India “concepts such as ‘Commie’ don’t have the same references as here in the USA”. I continued in this vein, “Dialectic materialism certainly is central to much of the writings and the research that goes on about Indian history… Subaltern Studies is a dynamic manifestation of this, but vulgar Marxism also appears in reference to studies of ‘Feudalism in Medieval India’, which claim as does R.S. Sharma that in the Bhakti movement a devotee’s relationship to his or her ishta deva is similar to a surf’s relationship to his or her feudal lord”.
I brought up the far left leaning politics of the editor of Frontline, N. Ram “whose articles often appear in SACW” the news service that was under discussion. I pointed out that many of the regular authors whose essays are forwarded across the internet by SACW are “very vocal, and self-avowed Marxists”. I asked Cook why he needed to defend them if they are not ashamed of being Marxist? I added, “What smacks of McCarthyism is the witch hunt against participants and organizers of WAVES and the Indic Colloquium…”
Since in his message, Cook had called B.B. Lal the famous archaeologist a “Hindu Chauvinist” who did “sloppy” work, I asked another question, “Why before 1992 did all the scholars at JNU, such as Prof. R. Thapar and Prof. R.S. Sharma, refer to [Lal’s] work as golden, and to him as the father of Indian Archaeology, footnoted repeatedly in their historical narratives?” Lal has been unfairly under attacked by leftist intellectuals for over ten years, due to his discoveries at the site of the Babri Masjid/Ram Janam Bhumi and his unwillingness to hide the information he had found in the trenches he excavated in Ayodhya.
The partial references and assumed referents, aimed to discredit and defame the recent Indic Colloquium, which I had attended, was rather infuriating. I thought it was best to bring forward some of the topics that had been discussed at the colloquium instead of allowing these unsubstantiated attacks to stand unchallenged. I submitted several more messages to RISA in hopes of bringing a more informed and dispassionate angle to this debate. There was little actual information shared about either conference that had been severely slammed and spammed by RISA scholars. The debate, when it arose, would swing between the far extremes of those who automatically hated any thought of Hindus who organize conferences and the few folks who attended. The second group were often blasted and silenced for making an effort on RISA to bring some rational attention to the topic as opposed to the knee-jerk warnings that seemed to be the standard responses—but that was effective in curbing the much neglected discussion, as mentioned, essential to the health of the field of “Religions in South Asia”.
I wanted the subscribers to RISA to read about some of the participants at the colloquium that was taking a ideological beating, so I submitted a message titled, “Traditional Knowledge Systems” that reported on the fascinating work of D.P. Agrawal “a publicly acknowledged Marxist” at http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/t_ed/t_ed_agraw_cv_frameset.htm, whose work is supported by Malhotra at the Infinity Foundation. Ironically in my investigation I found that Professor Witzel, who has been one of the most virulent critics of Hindu-supported research, was on the advisory board: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/tks_editor_frameset.htm
I forwarded a few more URLs relevant to the discussion, such as the project headed up by Bob Thurman from Columbia University and Roddam Narasimha, head of NIAS, Bangalore, to “bring out 15 to 20 volumes” over the over 5 years of “the ‘Needham of India’ Project”. I hoped that the plethora of useful information at the Infinity Foundation site might not only interest RISA scholars but, considering the rancorous critiques that had been sent, these URLs might help diffuse the stereotypes: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/tks_essays_frameset.htm. I wondered if such information was enough to dispel the prejudice, so I asked, if my RISA colleagues considered the “Needham of India” Project to be “recidivist extremism, trenchant, irrefutable, irascible, irrational, triumphal nationalism (aka: anti-Muslim)?” I surmised that it was not, and added, “No need for agni pariksha here… nor McCarthy”.
Since the attacks against the colloquium were personal and political and none of the other participants of the conference had written to counter these condemnations, I sent in a message with details about the conference participants and highlighted the events of each day. I wrote from the informed perspective of a participant of the much-maligned conference,
“There have been a slurry of negative emails regarding the recent Colloquium on Indic Traditions. It appears as if critics wrote in without referring to the list of participants, much less the topics covered during the conference, even though that URL had been provided in the initial email. Without a discussion of participants or topics, the “unique conference on Indic Traditions”, was roundly condemned by RISA scholars… but no references were made to the actual conference, just to assumptions of what must have gone on at such a conference supported by unseemly diasporic Indians. (Please note: there was actually an equal mix of ethnic South Asians and well published non-Indian scholars among the highly respected professionals who participated in the event.)
“What is indefensible in this kind of academic feeding frenzy is that subsequent RISA scholars who felt it incumbent on themselves to comment, quoted from the critical email of another scholar to make their points instead of going to the web page that described the conference and using primary resources to substantiate their critique. This is counter to all norms of scholarship.
“I was an invited guest at that colloquium and if I can please offer a summary of the contents of the conference, and then perhaps subsequent discussions can focus on that, instead of the politicized negative summations by one or two persons who did not attend the conference and also did not even refer to the URL to see what topics were discussed.”
I then quoted from “the colloquium web site” and concluded my participant’s report by describing some of the presentations that I had heard. I wrote,
“First of all, not to make too much of a jolly statement, I have to say, listening to Bob Thurman talk is like merging the Dalai Lama with Robin Williams… he is right on, centered and funny as heck. I must state that my two favorite living human beings on this earth are the Dalai Lama and Robin Williams. But, nonetheless, Bob was great and his hosting the conference at the Tibet House’s property at an estate outside Woodstock, NY in the Catskills, provided an incredible ambiance… When we walked the short hike along the stream, from the hostel to the conference hall, there were deer bounding off in all directions and the occasional couple of wild turkeys walking casually up the hills among the tall pine trees.
“But the most amazing ambiance centered around the intense conversations that blossomed each evening over wine after dinner…. Late into the night groups of scholars sat and talked and debated and shared.
“Not only professionally, but personally, I was impacted by several of the papers. In particular, as an educator, I was impressed by the presentation given by Laurie Patton, who applied the tradition of Samvad to conflict resolution. I also, not to seem too maudlin, but I found personal resonance with the talk given by Stuart Sovatsky, who has incorporated Indic stress reduction techniques and transcendent philosophy in to his practice of psychology. He was brilliant.
I was spell-bound by Arindam Chakrabarti’s discussion of dev, deva, ‘div’ and concepts of “divinity”… very impressed by Cleo Kearns who spoke about the Indic influences in T.S. Elliot’s work and how her research had grounded her in her Christian roots, and D. P. Agrawal who is doing some incredible research up in Kumoan, and Sunthar Visuvalingam, whose understanding of Abhinava Gupta is phenomenal, and my heroine Madhu Kishwar whose to the point presentations always tear your heart out, and I was particularly interested in the analysis of textbooks by Tara Sethia, and we promised to get together to co-author a paper in the near future… other than that, I must say that my favorite talk was by Christian Wedemeyer and his brilliant deconstruction of Buddhist Historiography. The best thing of all is that there are more such Colloquiums on Indic Traditions planned in the future. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if scholars on RISA were open to such dynamic interactions?!?!?
“I want to mention one more thing. I have had numerous conversations with Rajiv Malhotra, and he has said repeatedly that the worst obstacle that stands in the way of his life’s work (which is to bring a more positive approach to Indic traditions) is the VHP. He feels that every two steps forward that he takes, the Sangh and their Parivar agenda push the progress back a step. Rajiv is very vocal about this. No doubt his goals have been viewed one too many times through a saffron lens…. And he is sick of it. If he finds out that scholars have an RSS connection he is very, very suspicious and he told me emphatically that the Infinity Foundation refuses to fund any project or the research of any scholar who has any association with the “VHP”.
“Will those on this list who found fault with this “Colloquium on Indic Traditions” please be specific and dispense with quoting biased colleagues and please refer to issues raised by participants at the conference? That would be far more fair and far more effective. Thank you kindly.”
That same day, August 6th, Lance Nelson, the moderator wrote a serious if humorously worded warning regarding the debate that had been raging on RISA about the role of practicing Hindus in the study of Hinduism. Nelson warned the members that it was “Time to take it off-list”. He wrote, ironically but ominously, “By now I think we are all sufficiently aware of the dangers of rabid Hindu nationalists secretly plotting to take over the academic study of Hinduism. Our consciousness has been raised as well about the equally rabid Marxists and crypto-missionaries lurking in the ranks of academic scholars of Hinduism. I for one feel it’s time to take this particular discussion off-list, unless there are fresh voices that want to take it in a more productive direction”. He forwarded the URL with the RISA rules and quoted from the mission statement, “RISA-L is intended as a ‘forum in which the professional scholars… may exchange ideas and information on matters pertaining to their research and teaching’.”
Since there was a lot of investment in this topic, from both sides, a simple request from Professor Nelson was insufficient to halt the discussion. Greg Bailey was one of the only scholars who took the time to at least visit the “Mandala” website, and sent in his impressions and critiques, in brief. Even if I didn’t agree with everything he said, I was glad that is was based on research instead of opinion. I thoroughly agreed with the moderator that there was a need for “fresh voices” and I wondered why the other participants of the colloquium, many of whom were also members of RISA, had been silent. Perhaps they hadn’t made it home yet and hadn’t checked their email to see that they had been ruthlessly thrown into a virtual pit with fascists and fundamentalists.
Then, Cynthia Humes, who did not attend the colloquium, suddenly decided to attack me and wrote a letter that accused me of being a hypocrite for taking funding from the Infinity Foundation while also publicly defending it. Her letter was very condescending and I received several messages off-line, also cc’ed to professor Humes and the moderator as well, insisting that she apologize to me, which she never did. She accused me of making “numerous factual errors, ad hominem remarks, and gross generalizations” but she did not provide any examples. In contrast, in the emails I had submitted in response to what I considered to be “factual errors, ad hominem remarks, and gross generalizations” I had included the comments that I had found objectionable and replied specifically to those copied and pasted quotes. The factual errors that Humes found in my messages were not identified, they were simply assumed.
Humes wrote with a poison pen, “Yvette positions herself as higher than all of the rest of us on this list, and characterizes other scholars’ contributions as ‘slinging mindless pejoratives’.” Humes claimed that by bringing attention to the observed biases I was perpetuating those same prejudices. This seemed like another ploy by a RISA scholar to derail the discussion by labeling the critic and making dismissive comments. I responded briefly to Professor Hume noting that when the bias had reached an “anti-critical mass” on RISA, as she called it, replete “with the pit bulls and the rodents” as per George Thompson, I had waded in “perhaps over my head”. I agreed with her that it was a “huge time commitment, which I could ill afford”, adding that “but for the numerous supportive emails I received off the list, it would have been a waste”. I signed off with this statement, “The study of Religions in South Asia is the only victim here as a chasm seems to be cutting through the very heart of the field, and the damage that labeling does to academic discourse can be quite debilitating”.
In the meantime, there had also been several messages forwarded to RISA from Rajiv Malhotra by Pankaj Jain–since Rajiv was being attacked and was unable to defend himself because he is not a member of the list. When the issue of funding was brought up by Humes, Malhotra went on the offensive, pointing out that the vast majority of the funding that RISA-type area studies scholars access to support their research comes from evangelical Christian institutions or governmental organizations with possible connections to the CIA. The topic of funding was a windfall that opened up a new area of discussion, because none of the scholars on RISA are innocent. This debate, controversial and central as it is, was not allowed to continue by the moderator. My ability to contribute to the discussion was also coming to an end, as I was soon unsubscribed by the RISA steering committee.
In the middle of all this June McDaniels sent me a personal email, off-list, she told me privately, “I respect your willingness to wade into the middle of these arguments- I usually avoid it”. She added reflecting that “Some people at the WAVES conference talked about “anti-Hindu bias” in academia”. She admitted, that she “hadn’t really thought about it before” adding,
”I was at Chicago, where I just figured they were anti-everything- but it may be that Hinduism generates a special ire. I’m not sure why- there are nationalist movements with religious sympathizers all over the world, and I have seen little written on them. Usually people making strong ethical statements are trying to support or protect some group, but it is unclear to me which group these people like (Muslims?)
Before I was gagged by the higher ups at RISA, I was able to send in one last message, which by offering a brief history of the recent rancor, was a bit of a defense and also perhaps preemptive. I wrote,
May I make a few comments that may help to move what should have been an important debate into a hopefully more “productive direction”? As we all know, beginning in mid-July numerous messages were submitted concerning dangerous pit bull like practitioners of Hinduism and there were many “ad hominem remarks, and gross generalizations”. When June M. asked, “Is religion something that only scholars may study?”, she was called “contaminated”. Which prompted Ramdas L. to propose a query I would like to reiterate, “I think of the list as a forum for dialogue and discussion, not combat. Am I missing something here? Do I misunderstand the purpose of this list?”
It seems to me that many of the tools and theories that have dominated the humanities and social sciences for the past few decades, pushing the academic envelope, have turned back on themselves in a kind of anti-Edward Said-ism. Rejecting the “’politically correct’ terminology about “insiders” vs. “outsiders”” scholars are free to cast “aspersions of scholarly prejudice”, especially at the scoffed at “emic”. Thus broad comments about participants at certain conferences are made, such as, “there is a very dangerous right-wing, reactionary, Hindu fundamentalist community, very actively at work in all of this” and others chime in to agree with critiques of triumphalism and their “contempt for the polemical tactics” of diasporic Hindus.
Ramdas also wrote, “I think the RISA listserv is an excellent medium for shedding critical light and open debate on the issues involved.” Yet this did not happened… those much hated Hindus and contaminated sympathetic scholars were lambasted and maligned and the result was the deepening of divisions which “amounts to advocating a kind of intellectual apartheid”.
Prof. Hume mentioned my “argumentative fashion vis a vis members of the list”. However, I would kindly point out that there were weeks of mean spirited critiques before I ventured forth “where angels fear to tread”…. knowing full well that I was “sticking my neck out”. But the “many ad hominem remarks, and gross generalizations” had, IMHO, indeed reached an “anti-critical mass”. (Btw, Cynthia, there can be no victimization here since I waded in willingly.)
Is the Study of Religions in South Asia really heading towards “a kind of intellectual apartheid”? If so, isn’t it our duty as scholars and educators to confront that very dangerous trend in a productive non-hysterical methodical manner? To highlight this hysteria, is the reason that many of my recent postings on this topic copied numerous quotes from the earlier messages on RISA (pardon the bandwidth). There were countless comments, made by highly respected scholars, which I found to be scandalous, unfounded, scapegoating, and mean-spirited over generalizations.
“Yet in pointing these out, I drew condemnation (no problem, I expected it!). I have been pushing on that tired old Euro-centric/anti-Hindu envelope for a long time and I’m out front about it. Even though my efforts are ridiculed on RISA, I will persevere because I do see the space expanding. Isn’t that the purpose of RISA?
Will our lack of engagement with such controversial topics prove Lance’s wonderfully witty comment to be sadly true? Will the “crypto-missionaries lurking in the ranks of academic scholars of Hinduism” continue to fear and fight against the “rabid Hindu nationalists secretly plotting to take over the academic study of Hinduism”? Is this turning into a post-post-modern Ramayana with the saffron brigade of monkeys and bears storming the Ivory Towers of Lanka?
I don’t think it is that simple. Talking about these important if controversial problems that really do seem to dominate the field these days, should not be seen as contaminating RISA, or gumming up the study of Religions in South Asia. Where will such divisiveness lead us?
I signed off with a humorous acronym I coined for the occasion, “Still working for P.E.A.C.E. = Pushing the Envelope of Academic Critiques in Education <g>”
The last message that I received via the RISA list was from Professor Anna Bigelow on August 8th who forwarded a URL from the “US Commission on International Religious Freedom” investigating the Gujarat riots, http://www.uscirf.gov/hearings/10Jun02/index.php3. Professor Bigelow from the University of California at Santa Barbara, jumped in to condemn diasporic Hindus, a topic that had been very popular and few had been willing to contest. Bigelow wrote, “Clearly NRI support for all kinds of extremism has been a major factor in perpetuating violence against and between all religious and ethnic communities, from Assam to Kashmir to Punjab to Sri Lanka and of course Gujarat”. I wanted to object to such a blanket statement about a broad group of people, but when I tried, I found that I was no longer a member of RISA.
This tale of academic bias and internet drama on RISA-l did not come to an end just because I was expunged from the list for raising controversial topics, topics which many feel are essential to the survival of the field. As an outsider, I subsequently visited the RISA web site and saw where several of the scholars who had attended the colloquium had written in to describe their experiences and in some cases, because of the concerns of their colleagues, sought to justify their decision to attend the conference. During the next week, there were a number of messages that finally began to discuss the issues instead of making pejorative comments with referents to shared negative presumptions about non-specified diasporic Hindus.
Judson Trapnell of Charlottesville, Virginia sent a message that helped to break the ice. He is a practicing Christian who has received a grant from Rajiv Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation. He articulately discussed the issues of “Politics, Funding, and Dialogue” to which several other scholars, who had attended the conference added insightful comments, both supportive and critical, but nonetheless messages that focused on issues rather than personalities. The messages can be accessed at the RISA site: Professor Christian K. Wedemeyer at http://www.sandiego.edu/pipermail/risa-l/2002-August/000628; Professor Laurie Patton at http://www.sandiego.edu/pipermail/risa-l/2002-August/000629.html; Professor Purushottama Bilimoria at http://www.sandiego.edu/pipermail/risa-l/2002-August/000635.html–all of whom attended the colloquium and, a message from Prof. P. Kumar at http://www.sandiego.edu/pipermail/risa-l/2002-August/000634.html. After this two month blip of bytes on RISA that rancorously highlighted tangible racism and an anti-diasporic Hindu orientation, the discussions returned to less professionally uncomfortable topics such as malaria prevention medication and renting apartments in Calcutta.
When I discovered that I had been unsubscribed, I wrote to the moderator protesting my expulsion. I told him “my removal from the list was precipitated because I dared to challenge stereotypes and rubber stamped critiques…. challenges that may have cut too deep into the truth”. I explained that “It is easy to silence me”, but reiterated that regardless of the criticism that I received, “there are numerous RISA members who [had] written me off the list”. I told him that many of these scholars “are afraid to write their ‘alternative’ opinions to the list for fear of being subjected to a feeding frenzy”. I suggested that this bias “is a matter that should be seriously considered by RISA’s steering committee”. I forwarded the moderator a message I had received from a subscriber titled “interesting RISA posts — thanks!” She had written to me off the list,
I am an “ex” scholar of South Asian Religion (completed my MA from the University of Chigaco Divinity School in 2000 and I am not pursuing my PhD due, in part, to my disgust with the current state of Religion PhD programs & academia in general) and I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate greatly what you post on the RISA-list. I know you have been “bashed” by some in the past, and I’m glad that you continue to make a number of interesting and thought-provoking points. I really appreciate your usage of relevant anecdotes (like this recent one of the green-eyed Sindhi farmer) — since my undergrad days at Barnard, what I have always loved about studying SA Religion has been the mythology, the history, the language, the culture — and in higher academia I feel that that stuff often gets cast aside in favor of theoretical debate and posturing. So thanks for attempting to remind folks about what is REALLY important in our attempts to study and speak about South Asia.
One thing is certain, by expelling me from RISA, there is one less person with a voice in the academic field of “Religions in South Asia” who is willing to wade in and point out the blatant prejudice in blanket anti-Hindu statements such as Bigelow made about those fascist fundamentalist diasporic Hindus. I have been accused by several distinguished scholars including Frank Conlon and Cynthia Humes of wasting my time responding to emails on academic list-servs such as RISA. However, a study of the biases that are the norm in the academic world of South Asian Studies and the world of scholarly internet discussions is a part of my area of interest. Highlighting those biases is my purpose in writing this expose on RISA.