Indian Thought via Western Eye

Myth Theory 32 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, October 24, 2010

Many people get upset when they read books written on Hinduism by Western scholars. Their analytical methods result in outcomes that are shocking and bizarre. Yet, they are published with aplomb typical of academic arrogance. There is no empathy in their vision of Hinduism. Nevertheless, rather than getting upset and outraged, I feel, it is important to empathize with them too.

Imagine a Western scholar from Europe or America. All his life, he has been exposed to Judaism, Christianity or Islam, religions that frown upon any overt display of sexuality. To him, sexuality is almost always an act of rebellion, an expression of defiance against the establishment. Its seen as being modern! Further his education has been influenced by rationalists thinkers like Voltaire and Hegel and Marx, who either denied God or made room only for God of Christianity, and who believed only in one life, with little or no exposure to Indian and Chinese thought based on rebirth and harmony.

So imagine his surprise when he comes to India and encounters temples embellished with images of men and women in erotic embrace. Imagine his bewilderment when he finds Hindus worshipping an image shaped like a phallus called Shiva-linga. This is what his ancestors, a hundred years ago, also encountered, and condemned as pre-modern, licentious and savage. The scholar finds them vicariously liberating. Keen to study and understand these images, he hunts for a suitable academy. He finds none in India. So he enrolls in a Western institution, where he is guided by Western academicians and is expected to follow methodologies developed and approved in the West. He starts reading texts as he would read the Bible or Tanakh (Jewish Bible) not realizing that texts do not serve the same purpose in Hinduism. He decodes scriptures and images using his own cultural frameworks as the template. His conclusions are published in respected academic papers that win him accolades from Western academia.

The reaction amongst Indians is very different. In the 19th century, the reaction was defensive and apologetic. Hindu social reformers bent backwards to sanitize Hinduism and strip it of all things the West condemned.  The 21st century is witnessing defiance and outrage, mostly amongst the Indian Diaspora, and the Right-wing, who react passionately, sometimes even violently and demand censorship, as they view a sinister conspiracy.

Accused of cultural insensitivity, Western scholars strike back saying that Hindus do not know their own heritage and are still viewing Hinduism through the archaic Victorian lens. Battle lines are drawn. They are still drawn. Who is right, the arrogant Western academician or the stubborn Hindu devotee?

The divide between Western academicians and Hindu devotees exists in their relative attention to form and thought. Form is tangible and objective, thought is intangible and subjective. Western scholars have been spellbound by the sexual form but pay scant regard to the metaphysical thought. In other words, they prefer the literal to the symbolic. Hindu devotees, in contrast, are so focused on the metaphysical thought that they ignore, or simply deny, the sexual form. The Western preference for form over thought stems from their cultural preference for the objective over the subjective. Hindus, on the other hand, are very comfortable with the subjective hence can easily overlook form and focus on thought.

To equate Shiva-linga with phallic-worship is like equating the Crucifix with corpse-worship. To associate everything in Hinduism with caste is like equating everything in Islam with terrorism. Such analysis is devoid of empathy. All it leads to is rage and violence, which is not the intention of academia.

  • uppili

    The last sentence “To equate Shiva-linga ………….academia.” is the essence. It is a simple but profound expression. I cannot agree with you more. Hats Off!
    uppili chakrapany

  • Very Bold article. It is really important to know that Hinduism(or Sanatana Dharma)is very unlike other religions.

    Also, it bolsters the fact that to learn something… many times you have to unlearn a lot of other things.

  • Devendra

    I guess this is a reference to the controversy caused when non-academic Hindus were suddenly shown what academics were writing about Hinduism. (The controversy AFAIK started with Rajiv Malhotra’s articles RISA Lila 1 and RISA Lila 2. Actually, despite all the controversy they caused, the articles do contain a “U-Turn theory” similar to the one you describe: that (some) Western scholars are drawn to Hinduism (or Indian thought generally) because of its richness in terms of mythology and imagery that are lacking in their own background, but they end up treating everything as “exotica” or even as pathologies to be explained. Oh well.

  • Rashmi

    Its a refreshing article! And also in alignment of the basic thought of your articles – that there are all possibilities … must broaden his/her mental faculties and try to look beyond the defined lines!

    Would love to see more such articles, Sir.

  • Thejaswini

    Beautifully written. Every point in this article is true. Hindus give importance to inner meaning than that is at display.

  • yep – its like saying the eucharist of bread and wine turning to body and blood of christ is like cannibalism !
    Or the inter-family marriage of muslims is like incest.

    West is not happy to be judged by the same standards they judge others.

  • anil kothari

    west always belives their thinking to be superior to east,but east does not do the same,it knows where it stands.

  • Well said! It’s like four blind people exploring an elephant. When people will come to know that life is about understanding but not concluding.

    • Prabal

      Loved the line. :)
      “Life is about understanding and not about concluding”

  • “Keen to study and understand these images, he hunts for a suitable academy. He finds none in India.”

    Now, this is the crux of the article and a very critical necessity in contemporary India. We need to study Hinduism for what it is, and not what others force us to believe.

    Who is up for the challenge? Can anybody or any institution start a course in ‘Hinduism’?

    • Venkat Vadlamudi

      There are plenty of organizations that are systematically teaching “Hinduism”. Did you make any attempt to reach out to any of these institutions ?

      • Devdutt

        They can reach out to me…:-)

  • Satish Gundawar

    We should welcome criticism. At least, it gives us an opportunity to check our own heritage from Indian perspective. However, our acceptability should not be misunderstood as our weakness.

  • Well written.

    Honestly, the conclusion seemed a li’l abrupt. I was hoping for more. While you have portrayed the Western interest in Indian scripture well, I would have expected you to continue the Indian views on the Western scriptures to balance the views. Without that this post seems like a defense of the Indian scriptures – and a VERY well-written defense, I must add.

    What this article needs, IMHO, is an Indian perspective on the Western scriptures. That’ll bring out the necessary outrage. :)

    Cheers! :)

    • Devdutt

      Very good point….will write in future

      • Suraj


        I’m a fan of your work, and I always look forward to reading your articles are they come forth.

        I was just curious-have you participated or been in touch with Dr. Balagangadhara at Ghent University. If yes, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on his work…

        If not, you should check his stuff out-he touches on much of what you outline in this article.

        Best wishes,

  • Jose

    I was curious to know your views on books written by western oriented Indians such as Gurucharan Das, especially the recent re-interpretation based on Mahabharata “The Difficulty of Being Good”. He too had to study Sanskrit and read the original text with great difficulty at Western Institutions.

    • Devdutt

      You can study Sanskrit in India, if you want to…..and you don’t need to study Sanskrit to study the Mahabharata

  • Parikshit Sharma

    I guess its a price the translator pays for making sense of what is written by our kinds in India. I feel we need to be grateful to them for attempting to spread the thinking of eastern culture. But a very interesting perspective to the western translations.

  • pankaj shevkar

    i think we should first of all respect the forigners as its our tradition to welcome guest and further it is our responsbility to make them aware of the ESSENCE of our scriptures(which is known to few of us only “TO LOVE & SERVE THE GOD”
    i knew one person ‘SRILA PRABHUPADA’ who preach to forieners and his followers still follow Sanatana Dharma

  • Sid

    That was some refreshing thoughts on the western eye. However I think, you explained the whole thing very nicely but at the end, there was a need to set the record straight. Forget westerners, even many Indians do not understand the true meaning of these things, if you could explain it as well, it would be wonderful.

  • Sharat

    Hi Devduttji,

    A well written article, rightly exposing the narrow mindedness of Western Academia when it comes to eastern philosophy especially Hindu philosophy. They simply cann’t accept the superior philosophy of Hiduism of universal brotherhood, respect to other people’s beliefs, and highly advanced scientific contributions of ancient Rishis. Because everything right, high value, and modern inventions about mathematics, Astronomy, Medicine etc, according to them is their invention, and the people of India are too uncultured backward people to have such high edeals, who need to be taught a thing or two. So their aim is to plagiarize it, belittle it’s high ideals, concentrate on the mundane, irrelevant stuff and show whatever litlle good things are in it are in fact borrowed from the Abrahamnical religions. IMHO, it has to be the biggest scandal of our modern times by these so called western historians right from Max Mueller to devalue everything that is Hinduism who write and say everything outside the context of our shashtras to please their colonial mindset. The world would have been a better place had the western academia, who unfortunately are the most influential (even today), understood Hinduism in it’s right perspective and promoted it through unbiased, unprejudiced writings.
    Instead of practicing, benefitting form such a scientifically proved and secular tenets of hinduism such as, Yoga, Meditation, one God but different paths etc, some of these people have branded it as demoniac etc. It can be said with certainity that there can be no terrorists in this world where people practice Yoga, pranayams and Universal Brotherhood, just to name a few of the Hindu ideals.
    It is not that a Westerner does not have any place to learn about hinduism in it’s right perspective, if he/she wants to, but when people are already having preconceived notions and biased views, you can only expect them to produe such trash on Hinduism
    Hope better sense prevails, because it is in the best interest if the humanity.

    As Shrikant Joshi has suggested, Devduttji, plese consider to bring out an article on Indian perspective on western scriptures.


  • Nikhil Gokhale

    There is one more thing that contributes to Western way of looking towards asian religions and culture and that is money. I have been in the US for quiet sometime now and I see that these guys can only think in terms of money. Since majority of India right now is poor wealth-wise, they look at what we follow with disdain and try to relate that with the existing poverty.

    As far as the Hindu historians and the right wing goes, I want to just say that accepting what others observe is the only way of self improvement. There are many influences of invasions in current version of Hinduism. For me the real Hinduism was tolerant enough to have someone write a book like Kamasutra. Making our religion more open and liberal in all ways is like bringing back our real religion.

  • Sandhya

    Devdutt, Hinduism has become such a soft target overall…..Have you read Wendi Doniger’s work…guaranteed to make even the most reasonable Hindu person’s blood boil. I agree with the comments above…it seems that your karma was to snap all of us zombie Hindus out of our slumber.
    I keep saying ‘Hindu’ because, while Hindu philosophy belongs to and can benefit anyone and everyone, there is a systematic and deliberate attempt to dis-associate it with the Hindu rleigion. I’ve seen you put the same point across very gently in some of your videos, but don’t you agree there is a need to say “Hindu” philosophy, rather than “Indian” philosophy while refering to the epics? Otherwise, these remarkable efforts will go the same way as Yoga has in America, completely de-coupled from its Hindu origins, just a bunch of calisthenics without context.

    • Devdutt

      Honestly I like Wendy’s work…some of her interpretations are really really terrible….but to dismiss her completely is a bit prejudiced….let us focus on what good people do rather than focus on what is bad….

  • Dear Devji,

    Hats off to you on writing such a thought-provoking article! I am of the opinion that there is only One God, and He has been addressing the whole of humanity through various scriptures of various religions. God so loves the humanity, that He wants all His creations, the human beings, to enter the Heaven, He made for all of us, and not the Hell which He Himself made. Hinduism is probably the oldest religion on earth, and Islam is the youngest on earth. Yesterday, on a TV show, they were depicting how Hell is described in Garuda Purana. I find that the same is the picture Which Quran presents of Hell. How could there be such a great similarity between religions which evolved thousands of Kms and thousands of years away if they are not from the same source? How come all religions talk of One God, a Heaven, a Hell, and encourage noble deeds, and admonishes evil deeds. I feel that instead of highlighting the similarities in different religions, we are highlighting only the differences between religions, and hence the problem. As a Muslim, if I quote from the Quran, kindly bear with me. God says in the Quran,

    “I am One and One alone, There is no God other than me. I only created the whole universe and the complete humanity. I want the humanity to pray to me and me alone (for I have created them, and provide for them) and to do good deeds, feed the hungry, help the indigent and the orphans, serve the humanity and enter the Heaven, which I created for them, and to desist from evil deeds, lest enter the Hell, which I created for the evil-doers. With this simple message I have sent 1,25,000/- warners in the world since its inception. There is no community, to whom I have not sent my warner, who tells them about me and what to do, what not to do. I have given the brains to humanity to analyse and understand, sift the Truth from Untruth. I shall not hold any community accountable, without sending my warner to them. And I shall also not spare them, after sending my warners to them, if they do not use their brains and follow the words of my warners and accept my message, out of prejudice, or by telling, “Our fathers and forefathers have been doing like this and they could not have done wrong, so we shall continue the ways of our ancestors.” . After receiving my message, there is no excuse they can offer in their defense, and their lame excuses shall not be accepted.”

    Prophet Mohammed said, “The whole building was ready, there was a gap of one brick, and I am that last brick, and thus God has completed and perfected religion, with me. After me, there shall not come any warner, and I am the last of the warners. God has given His final message to humanity through me, in the form of Koran, which has just 6666 verses in it. God has taken upon himself the responsibility to protect His book, The Koran, meant for the whole of humanity, till the doomsday. It is preserved in the same form in which it was revealed. People have written down the book as and when it was revealed to me, because by that time the art of writing was already developed. And many people have got it by heart. All the earlier books of the same God are tampered with and altered. The art of reading and writing was not developed in those ages, and His message was passed on to later generation through word of mouth, because of which those words of God got corrupted. They are not available in the same form in which they were sent by God. It shall not be possible for you to remove the corn from the chaff. So follow the last Book of God revealed through me. Don’t ever think that this is a concoction made by me. I do not know whether you are aware or not that I am an illiterate. Koran is the word of God written in grandest form of eloquence, the like of which no human being can produce till the Doomsday. It is an open challenge God is making to humanity, to try make a small chapter like that of the Koran. Read for yourself without prejudice, and you would understand for yourself. My duty as a warner is to give God’s message to you; thereafter it is between you and God. My responsibility is over. God has reserved the right of giving Guidance to Himself. He guides whom He wills, and leads astray whom He wills.”

    Prophet Mohammed said, “Islam (which means, surrender to the will of God) is no religion founded by me. It is the oldest religion of God, as old as the world itself. God has sent me only to resurrect it and restore it to its original form.”

    The need of the hour is to have a comparative study of all religions, to identify all common things amoung them and adopt them, and ignore the differences. If Christianity is revealed by God, God only has revealed Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam also. Let us all use and follow our conscience, our soul, our brains and our Judgment. Let us not extol any religion, and degrade any religion. They are all His religions after all.

    With due apologies to Devdutt Ji, and other reader friends, and a request to pardon me if I am wrong, and also for being too long.

    Thanking you.

    • a l mohan

      mr jaleel needs to clarify on the following. at the outset he avers that”hinduism is probably the oldest religion on earth and islam is the YOUNGEST on earth.”by the end of his comments he claims”it(islam)is the OLDEST religion of God as old as the world itself”.it is difficult to guess what he means by “religion of GOD !”

      • AS I said earlier, the Arabic word ISLAM means “Surrender to the Will of God.” It is the God’s Religion and the oldest religion on earth. This is the first constitution given by God to humanity. Subsequently, with the changing times, God has been making amendments to it through His subsequent warners, and subsequent Scriptures. For example, God had permitted eating of pork and taking intoxicants in the earlier Islam, i.e., Christianity. But after 571 years in the newer Islam, i.e, Mohammedanism, God had prohibited these. Though God has sent 1,25,000 warners or prophets in the world since its inception, only 10 to 15 warners have been named in the Koran. It is quite likely that Lord Buddha, Lord Mahaveer, and all Indian sages could have been from amoung those 1,25,000 warners of God. Going by the same meaning of Islam, I hold that Hinduism, being the oldest religion, would be oldest Islam and the first constitution; and Mohammedanism, being the youngest religion, would be the youngest Islam and the youngest constitution of God. Since my Hindu brothers MAY not like Hinduism to be called as Islam, and my Muslim brothers MAY not like their religion to be called Mohammedanism (after the name of Prophet), I preferred using the Phrase “God’s Religion” instead of “ISLAM”. Extolling some religion or denigrating any religion is not my intention at all. My only intention is to say that they are all One religion of One God, and thus all human beings are brothers. Hope, I have clarified myself.

        • There are too many contradictions between the Quran and the Gita for me to take Islam seriously.

          In the Quran, God cannot beget, he cannot incarnate and he is separate from his creations.

          In the Gita, God can beget, he incarnates endlessly, and is present in His creations (humans being one of them)

          Frankly, from philosophy, comparative theology and scientific discoveries, I believe Hinduism is the religion for me, as it lays the basis for other true religions.

  • a l mohan

    mr jaleel needs to clarify on the following. at the outset he avers that”hinduism is probably the oldest religion on earth and islam is the YOUNGEST on earth.”by the end of his comments he claims”it(islam)is the OLDEST religion of God as old as the world itself”.it is difficult to guess what he means by “religion of GOD !”

  • Very true. One does not convert to Hinduism, they awaken to it.


  • Dear Pattnaikji,
    I came to know you via Youtube by your very popular show Shaastrarth” and have become a regular viewer of it. You have very intelligently woven the mythological principles with modern business and have inspired many minds to plan efficiently.

    What I have personally interpreted after listening to you is that the wrong understanding of ancient
    texts and its message among the mob is due to our faulty education system.

    Few months ago I came across an article stating Macaulay’s opinion on India and his strategies to
    change the education system here so that britishers can rule us for long. His plan was to ruin the self
    esteem of Indians and their language and make English language a brand of Literacy and Intelligence and
    also to mar the faith of Indians in their religion. It shocked me a lot.

    My question is how far do you hold Macaulay’s conspiracy responsible for the present intellectual and
    emotional degradation of Indians and to what extent. What would have been the scenario if such event
    had not taken place?

    Awaiting your reply.