Published on 5th January, 2020, in Mumbai Mirror
We may claim to be free of colonial rule, but we are still spellbound by Caucasian people. We link their skin to beauty and power. So it is not great surprise that Hindus seek validation of their faith from Caucasian scholars and converts.
We place great value on a book on Hinduism by a white scholar; it is seen as more objective, free from ‘devotional’ bias. Many take great pride when a Caucasian ‘converts’ to the dharmic fold, with him or her adopting alien-sounding Hindu names, bestowed by their gurus, names that begin with ‘Sadhvi’ or ‘Shastri’ or end with ‘Das’. Study of Hindu mythology through the white lens gives a deep insight into how Hinduism is read differently from the Leftist and the Rightist perspective. The former comes from the academic Hindu expert world, and the latter from the neo-convert white Hindu world.
Just as European Orientalists argued the White Man’s Burden justified colonial rule in the 19th Century, white academicians, especially in American universities, establish problematic social spaces where humanitarian intervention is required. When they look at Hinduism, they are seeking the problems that America needs to solve, either through political or economic intervention. American studies on Hinduism will, therefore, always tend to focus on patriarchy and casteism.
So, when Wendy Doniger writes a book on Hindus, it is an ‘alternate’ history. The title itself suggests that there is a popular history that overshadows other histories, thereby creating a bifurcation between the dominant oppressor and the invisible oppressed. This school of thought constructed concepts such as Brahmanism and Savarnism and equated them with ‘caste’ Hinduism. Scholars such as Sheldon Pollock argue how the Ramayana is not so much a devotional document as it is a political document designed to marginalise invaders and outsiders like the Muslims. Historians like Richard Eaton will dilute the popular belief of the violent entry of Islam into India, with research showing how most of Islam spread non-violently through agricultural activities in tribal areas.
While the world accuses Caucasians of othering the rest of the world, these Indologists have very cleverly ensured that upper-caste and upper-class Hindus are accused of doing exactly the same thing: of othering women, queers, lower communities and, of course, themselves.
The problem is never with the research, which is always exhaustive and impressive; the problem is with the conclusions based on the hermeneutics of suspicion, which considers all popular understandings as delusional and manipulative political strategies. It seems these scholars are providing fuel to social justice movements, which is how many in humanities departments justify their existence.
On the other extreme, you have the neo-Hindu white converts writing books on the greatness of Hinduism, that the world denies or is yet to discover. They explain how ancient India, from Harappa to Vedas, was the source of all civilisations that emerged in India. They will support ideas like the ‘Out of India’ theory, which says all knowledge came from India. Writers like David Frawley, with new exotic names like Vamadeva Shastri, write books like Arise Arjuna and Awaken Bharata that feed paranoid, right-wing fanatics’ belief that Hinduism is endangered and needs to be protected from westernisation and Islam, and also from modern liberal educated Hindus who are not spellbound by Indian exotica. This kind of paranoia indulges the saviour complex that is at heart of Hindutva. Writers like Koenraad Elst become popular as they challenge the bigotry and bias that shapes western analysis of Hinduism. Scholars like Michel Danino are admired as they point to India’s great material achievements, thus propping up low self-esteem in matters of culture, commonly encountered in right wing circles and in the Indian diaspora.
Many white Hindus are drawn to New Age philosophies like neo-paganism and Wicca, as they are disillusioned by organised religions such as Christianity and Islam. As they immerse themselves in Hinduism, they end up organising Hinduism in their own way, as many gurus call upon their impressive administrative skills. We must never underestimate the powerful role played in the rise of Neo-Vedanta Hinduism, by women like Sister Nivedita, who played a key role in organising the Ramakrishna Mission, or Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. As they become part of core groups of Hindu ashrams, they shape the agenda, and eventually we find Hindu ashrams developing a clear vision, clear mission, clear activity charts, clear plans, and this creates a rigid, structured Hinduism that lacks the magic inherent in Hindu fluidity, clumsiness and chaos.