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Feb 24 2014

Imagine you are born as a Hindu boy

There are people who take another view of the unpublishing of Wendy Doniger’s book in India.

There’s Jakob de Roover for instance, writing in Outlook India.

Imagine you are born in the 1950s as a Hindu boy with intellectual inclinations. As you grow up, your mother takes you to the temple and shows you how to do puja. Your grandparents tell you stories about Bhima’s strength, Krishna’s appetite, Durvasa’s temper… Perhaps you rejoice when Rama rescues Sita, feel afraid when Kali fights demons, or cry when Drona demands Ekalavya’s thumb as gurudakshina. Your father is indifferent to most of this stuff, but then he is very moody so you prefer to stay away from him in any case.

In school, you are taught about the history of India. You learn that Hinduism grew out of the Brahmanism imported during the Aryan invasion. The caste system is a fourfold hierarchy imposed by the Brahmin priesthood, so you are told, and untouchability is the bane of Hindu society. Caste discrimination needs to be eradicated, as Gandhi said, while the scientific temper should displace superstitious tradition, as Nehru taught.

Your teachers present this account as the truth, along with Newton’s physics and Darwin’s evolutionary theory. You feel bad about your “backward religion” and ashamed about “the massive injustice of caste.” For some time, as a student, you also mouth this story in the name of progress and social justice. Yet you feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with it. You sense that it misrepresents you and your traditions—it distorts your practices, your people, and your experience, but you don’t know what to do about it.

Could that be because you are a boy, and you are not a member of a lower caste?

Yes, it could. Jakob de Roover stacks the deck.

Later the boy has a daughter, who goes for a PhD in religious studies at “an Ivy League university” – without explanation for why she decided to go abroad for her PhD.

After some months, she begins to feel disappointed by the shallowness of the teaching and research. When compared to, say, the study of Buddhism, where a variety of perspectives flourish, Hinduism studies appears to be in a state of theoretical poverty. Refusing to take on the role of the native informant, she begins to voice her disagreement with her teachers. This is not appreciated and she soon learns that she has been branded “Hindutva.”

Around the same time, she detects a series of factual howlers and flawed translations in the works of eminent American scholars of Hinduism. When she points these out, several of her professors turn cold towards her. She is no longer invited to reading groups and is avoided at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion. In response, this budding researcher begins to engage in self-censorship and looks for comfort among NRI families living nearby. Her dissertation, considered groundbreaking by some international colleagues, gets hardly any response from her supervisors. Looking for a job, the difficulties grow: she needs references from her professors but whom can she ask? She applies to some excellent universities but is never shortlisted. Confidentially, a senior colleague tells her that her reputation as a Hindutva sympathiser precedes her. Eventually, she gets a tenure-track position at some university in small-town Virginia, where she feels so isolated and miserable that she decides to return to India.

There’s a lot more of the same kind of thing. It’s detailed but not convincing.

 

 

5 comments

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  1. 1
    RJW

    Agreed, it isn’t convincing if it’s intended as a defence of Hinduism, perhaps it’s a criticism of orientalism.

    What’s the point, apart from a clumsy attempt to cloud the issue?

  2. 2
    David Marjanović

    The point seems to be “ZOMG evil ivory tower academics/irrational rationalists/science is Western”.

  3. 3
    chrislawson

    This is indeed a terrible, waffling piece of “I don’t believe in banning books, but let’s ramble on about hypothetical people to try to understand why there is opposition to this book, while making sure not to mention any specific examples of anything.”

    But I will say that the petition to Penguin Group lists numerous errors in the book. http://www.petitiononline.com/petitions/dharma10/signatures

    I’m in no position to judge the accuracy of these claims. Can anyone else here help? (Because if the petition is a fair representation, then if I were in charge of Penguin I would have stopped publication just to prevent a bad book being published.)

  4. 4
    Shatterface

    Eastern countries have their own Ivory Towers – populated largely by those who’s parents were rich enough to educate them in the West.

    It’s just the lower caste who have to be kept ignorant to preserve their culture.

    I’m in no position to judge the accuracy of these claims. Can anyone else here help? (Because if the petition is a fair representation, then if I were in charge of Penguin I would have stopped publication just to prevent a bad book being published.)

    The decision was already made to publish – you don’t go back o0n that decision because you mysteriously develop doubts about the book’s quality after threats are issued.

    I’d take the petition as seriously as I took critics arguing that The Satanic Verses was ‘unreadable’ – after I’d read it.

  5. 5
    nkrishna

    Uh, okay. Don’t have to imagine. I was born as a Hindu boy in the 19(8)0s. In fact, up until the last sentence, that first paragraph could be my childhood to a T, but 30 years later. High caste, educated family, not particularly religious, but suffused with the mythology, well-off enough to go off to the US.

    And you know what? Somehow I’m not blind to my own privilege. Could it be that Hindu families aren’t monolithic and you can both appreciate the mythology and not deny that there are serious problems with Hindu practice in India?

    That caste discrimination should be eradicated, as Gandhi taught, wasn’t taught to me by the school system (which didn’t really seem to realize that Hinduism was a thing), but by my grandmother, an ardent and devoted Hindu who WALKED WITH GANDHI.

    This author seems to be suggesting that “Ivy League” academics treat Hinduism as a block, which if they do, I think they’re doing it wrong. But it my experience, they don’t. Jakob de Roover, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to believe there’s any room for self-reflection or criticism among those raised Hindu. That we’re all touchy and ashamed of our “backwardness” and get hurt fee-fees if someone looks askance at the subcontinent. But no, pointing out bad things in an “eastern” culture or religion is not colonialism or orientalism.

    I don’t consider myself a Hindu anymore, but I can’t deny that it was a specifically Hindu brand of philosophical inquiry that ultimately led me to atheism and to my view that shows a breadth of thought under the “Hindu” umbrella that neither Hindutva nor this author seem to grok.

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