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.