In Conversation With Dr. Shrinivas Tilak And Vishal Agarwal
Read and sign the petition to ask Penguin Books to withdraw the publication of the book "The Hindus : An Alternative History". The petition clearly points out the factual errors and clearly shows how grossly misleading the book is about India and Hinduism.
Shrinivas Tilak is an independent researcher based in Montréal. Born in 1939 in India, he immigrated to Canada in 1965 where he did B.A. (Asian studies), M. A. (history and philosophy of religion) at Concordia University, Montréal), and Ph D (history of religions) at McGill University, Montréal). Dr Tilak has taught at several universities in Canada and his publications include The Myth of Sarvodaya: A study in Vinoba’s concept (New Delhi: Breakthrough Communications 1984); Religion and Aging in the Indian Tradition (Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989), and Understanding karma in light of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophical anthropology and hermeneutics (Charleston, SC: BookSurge, revised, paperback edition, 2007). His forthcoming work is 64 Ways to self-improvement through karmayoga: A Gandhian initiative.
Could you describe the mission of department of religion and religious studies in North America?
In North American universities, study of religion is a legitimate academic pursuit. Students are encouraged to learn about world religions in theory and practice both from an insider’s and outsider’s perspectives. Ideally, a graduate in religious studies tends to be tolerant, broad-minded, and accommodative of fellow beings that may be practitioners of faiths different than one’s own. Unfortunately, the teaching of Hinduism at the high school and academic levels has remained an exception from this general trend and most professors of India and Hinduism tend to be ‘Orientalists’ (see below response to question # 7).
What motivated you to study this topic in a Canadian rather than an Indian University?
My generation that graduated from high school in India in the 1960s was under tremendous parental pressure to go for education and career in the fields of science and technology. I accordingly trained as a pharmacist and continued in that line of work in Germany and Canada until the 1970s. Living in Montreal, Canada, I had the freedom and privilege to make a career change. Since I was always interested in the history, culture, and religion, I registered in the faculty of religion at Concordia and then at McGill University, Montreal from where I earned my doctorate in the history of religions. I did my graduate work in religion in the West because in modern India, religion is not taught as an academic discipline at the university level.
As a faculty member, what was your approach to teaching this subject and what did you hope your students gained from your teaching?
I must make it clear that I never held a tenured position and as such had no opportunity to formulate a distinct teaching style of my own. I generally tried to follow the teaching guidelines rooted in objectives outlined in response # 1 above. I thought it was necessary to consider the history of Hinduism first from a Hindu viewpoint, then from an academic one. Different sorts of valuable insights may come to individuals both inside and outside the tradition and need not threaten one another. I therefore was keen that my students (whether Hindu or non-Hindu) received a fair understanding of typical Hindu precepts and practices both from the insider and outsider’s perspective. In reality, I discovered that both the students and the university administration were unwilling to accept any interpretation of Hindus and their dharma from their own standpoint. The main reason being that India has lived under foreign rule for the last millennium and does not now have a tradition of learning or teaching Hinduism using its own cognitive categories. Since India’s history was written by the victors, almost by definition, such a move outlawed or 'deformed' the Hindu self perception and understanding of their own history (for more details and discussion of this problem see my blog “Taking back Hindu studies” on www.sulekha.com.
The Book of Wendy Doninger "The Hindus - An alternate history" has been published which has caused a lot of ire. From a scholarly perspective, what is your opinion on the content of this book, which is written by someone who is in the same scholarly field as yourself?
Doniger claims that she is a ‘recovering Orientalist’ and has abandoned the Orientalist perspective in teaching or writing about Hinduism. Orientalism, she asserts, refers to a cluster of attitudes that implicated the first European scholars of India in the European colonization of India, overwhelming reliance on textual studies being one of them, pp.34-35). The fact is, Orientalism is much more than what Doniger claims it to be. It stands for the body of knowledge that the European powers began to generate from the seventeenth century onwards with a view to consolidate the economic, military, and political gains they had started making in Asia and Africa. Thus, having acquired military and political control over a sizeable portion of India, administrators of the British East India Company began to cast doubt and sow divisions among the people of Asia (and Africa) concerning their cultures, religions, and societies by gaining exegetical control over their traditional systems of knowledge. The discipline of Indology, which is a modern product of Orientalism, demonstrates a clear instance of how Western scholarship appropriates for itself the power to represent Indians, to translate and explain their thoughts and acts.
In chpater five Doniger claims that violence was embedded in Vedic sacrifice of cattle and horses. She situates the ritual violence in the social violence that it expressed, supported, and required, the theft of other people's cattle and horses (Doniger 2009 103). Doniger claims that post-Vedic Hindu bhakti and Hinduism have also been violent (Doniger 2009: 194). Please also take a look at my blog “Doniger does a doggie” at www.sulekha.com for in depth analysis of this book.
Is there clear evidence that this book does not follow the "scholarly publication guidelines" followed in the western liberal arts tradition?
I must specify that the book does follow these guidelines. Thus, Doniger acknowledges that the wild misconceptions that most Americans have of Hinduism need to be counteracted by making Americans aware of the richness and human depth of Hindu texts and practices, and an American interlocutor is often the best person to build that bridge. Hence this book (Doniger 2009: 652-653). Unfortunately, Doniger does not take her own advice and on page one announces: the main purpose of The Hindus is to provide a narrative account of “alternative people” who do not figure in the Brahmin-generated history—people who are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals). Behind the façade of providing an alternative history, the real agenda of The Hindus is to drive a wedge between the marginalized and the mainstream Hindus.
Do such books have potential for harm? If so what kind of harm can it inflict?
Under the guise of providing an alternative history, the real agenda of The Hindus is to drive a wedge between Hindus and non-Hindus in India and elsewhere. In order to show how Hindus are so utterly unlike others Doniger engages in denigrating, distorting, and demeaning all Hindus (low or high caste, men or women) and what is worse, ‘defrocking’ (both theologically and sexually) their gods and goddesses. Such a book therefore does have the potential to harm the Hindu self-perception and identity, particularly, young Hindus who happen to live in the diaspora.
Vishal Agarwal (b. 1970) holds Master's degrees in Materials Engineering and Business Administration. He works in a biomedical device firm dealing with cardiac surgery. Vishal spent most of his life in India where he lived in Delhi and in Pune. Currently, he resides with his wife and son in Minnesota (USA). Vishal is an ardent student of Hindu Dharma and ancient Indian history and is a practicing Hindu. Currently, he is engaged in the collection of electronic versions of Hindu texts, their translation and in writing biographies of Hindu philosophers for lay readers. He may be contacted via his email email@example.com
How did you get interested in the field of Ancient Indian Texts? How did you gain expertise in this are?
I was raised in my elementary and early middle school years by my maternal grandfather, who would narrate stories about medieval India (from the Delhi-Lahore region) to me. My Aunt, who lived with us, also majored in History in college. As a result, I got a lot of exposure to the history texts and read her college books in my younger years out of an (admittedly) unusual interest. At that time, I found the history of ancient India too boring but loved to read about the Moghul Empire. I also liked to read the few books on Hinduism published by the Chinmaya Mission and the Geeta Press that my father had in our home.
It was in my high school years when I went to our local temple library to borrow some books on Organic Chemistry when I encountered a treasure house of Hindu scriptures and books on ancient history. Around the same time, I was also intrigued by the opposing views on the historicity of the belief that the Babri Mosque was constructed over a demolished Hindu temple. This further motivated me to read as much as I could. I have not looked back since then. I have been studying books on ancient India and on Hinduism several hours every day for almost 20 years now. In a way therefore, I am self-taught although I have also had the great benefit of doing some course-work under Professor Vasudha Narayanan at the University of Florida in 1998.
The religious scriptures of India give me a lot of peace and answer my spiritual and mental needs adequately. And for this reason, I will continue to read and teach them as long as I live.
What motivated you work on a blog repudiating the work of Paul Courtright?
Courtright’s book could not be ignored for several reasons. First, it bore a Foreword by none other than Wendy Doniger, who is the currently reigning Czarina of Indology in the United States. Second, the book received a national award for its presumed excellence . Third, it was published by the Oxford University Press, one of the most reputed academic publishers in the world. Fourth, its reprint in India was brought out by Motilal Banarsidass, the largest publisher, exporter and distributor of Indological books in India.
I became aware of the controversy somewhat late and was quite repelled by the pornographic quotes from the book on various websites. I checked out the book from our local University of Minnesota library and was aghast to see sloppiness scattered all over. I discovered that the book was quite well acclaimed in academic circles despite its numerous flaws. So I teamed up with Kalavai Venkat (whom I had met on the internet in 2002) and together we wrote a critique of Courtright’s misuse of textual sources to fabricate a fictitious interpretation of passages relating to Lord Ganesha. The response from the scholarly community indicated that they were being quite close-minded, bigoted and dishonest. No one responded to us from an academic perspective and instead, we were accused of being Hindu fundamentalists. It is really sad to see that in the field of Hinduism studies, many of the so called scholars spend more time in scratching each other’s backs instead of doing their research diligently. The reality is that in this publish or perish culture, the Emperor (or the Empress) really has no clothes.
The Book of Wendy Doninger "The Hindus - An alternate history" has been published which has caused a lot of ire. What is your opinion on the content of this book ?
I am not an insider in the field of academic study of India and Hinduism. Perhaps, this grants me freedom from potential bullying by the Czars and Czarinas of Indology. I am not subject to peer pressure to conform to academic dogmas and power structures because they cannot threaten my livelihood. Coming to Doniger’s book, I think it is a seriously flawed book.
Let us be honest- the Marxist historians who dominate the field of history writing in India lack the competence or inclination to write any comprehensive history of Hindus. Doniger had therefore had a wonderful opportunity to plug this gap in the field of Hindu history which she has sadly frittered away. She chose to fall back on the same questionable devices that she uses in her other works nauseatingly – Freudian free association, cute and witty phrases at the expense of accuracy, selective use of evidence to retrofit data into preconceived theories etc. I have posted my comments on her book online at http://vishalagarwal.voiceofdharma.com/articles/thaah/
Even though the book in its present form is flawed and should be withdrawn, I think it is not beyond repair and has some good ideas. It is written in lucid English and is quite readable (even if it gives wrong information). She can certainly chose to rewrite large parts of it, change the overall structure and plan of the book a bit and release a second edition. In the past, she has dismissed her worthy critics by saying that “they do not even know what we do not know”, and her cohorts have labeled us as “emotional and dangerous hindutva followers.” Now, she needs to swallow her pride and consult knowledgeable Hindus in the United States if she wants to salvage her reputation.
Is there clear evidence that this book does not follow the "scholarly publication guidelines" followed in the western liberal arts tradition?
The evidence is in the form of the 100s of errors (factual, distortion of sources, biased interpretations) that my chapter-wise reviews list. The publisher may say that he did run through the motions and have his editors and peer reviewers check the drafts. But the fact that so many of these errors slipped through clearly indicates that the process was either not carried out, or that the process was carried out by editors who were incompetent.
There is some amount of sloppiness in all branches of learning, and to focus on western liberal arts traditions would be unfair. All the same, the brightest minds do not study ancient Indian history as a profession (but may study it from outside while pursuing other types careers). South Asian Studies and Indology departments are at the fringes of their Universities in general. There are simply so few scholars in these fields that it is easy for a single eyed to become the ruler of blind men. Which is why we see that books like the one by Courtight being regarded as masterpieces.
Indic and Hinduism studies in particular are also plagued by a strong prevalence of racist and (Judeo-Christian) fundamentalist attitudes amongst several western scholars. One only needs to peruse the archives of Liverpool Indology and other lists controlled by them to see how much abuse and discrimination Indians have to suffer in these professional discussion lists. Anyone from India contradicting the received wisdom of Western Indology is termed as a Hindu Nationalist. On the other hand, there are also quite a few academics of Indian origin who subscribe to Leftist and Communist ideologies and inject Indian politics in American Academe. When I went to college in India, we used to hear of Leftist and Communist controlled Teacher Unions in Delhi University and other places. Now I see that these same teacher union leaders are in American Universities in dozens. They will collude with anyone who can berate Hindus just because that is what they did when they were in India. Rajiv Malhotra has aptly used the term ‘sepoys’ for them.
Do such books have potential for harm? If so what kind of harm can it inflict?
As an example, let us take Courtright’s book. We discovered that slanted descriptions of the deity in the book had started creeping into mainstream society in the West. For instance, in an exhibit on the Hindu deity arranged by a museum in Baltimore, the book served as a seminal text that was quoted in citations accompanying the exhibit. After the publication of the book, Paul B. Courtright came to be acknowledged as an authority on the subject of Ganesa. This was evident from the way in which numerous other writers of books on the deity not only acknowledged his help and guidance, they often quoted his text approvingly or at least in a neutral manner. A sourcebook on Hinduism and psychoanalysis cited long extracts from his book to explain the father-son relationship in the Hindu society. These citations actually constituted some of the most vulgar and offensive sections of ‘Ganesa’. Obviously according to the author of this sourcebook, Courtright’s work was seminal for a psychoanalytical understanding of family relationships amongst Hindus. In Australia, Lord Ganesha was depicted as ‘Gaynesh’ by local gay groups. While I support Gay rights, such a depiction is very misleading. And finally, several hate websites run by fundamentalist Christian groups copiously quote Courtright’s book to ‘prove’ that the Hindus are a very depraved bunch of idiots. So we see that Courtright’s book had several harmful effects.
Now let us take Doniger’s book. I looked at the Worldcat database and noted that in less than one year of its publication, more than 700 libraries have acquired it in North America and Europe. With the current trend of globalization, everyone in the west wants to know about alien cultures. Given the chatty style of Doniger’s book, I fear that it will be read by a lot of people and will reinforce stereotypes in their minds about Hindus. I doubt that the cover used by Doniger will allow the book to be used as a textbook in very many schools. But again, there is a chance that school textbooks writers will use her book as a reference. Penguin is a very large publisher and Doniger will doubtless visit India on her book promotion tours, spreading her faulty interpretations further. Hindu haters will, in the course of time, quote her book to the effect that Hindu saints indulged in sexual orgies, that Hindu Deities were full of lust and so on. It is this kind of hatemongering against Jews that even led to their holocaust during WWII, and Doniger should understand it well enough.
It is a sad fact that most English writings on Hindu traditions are by writers who are not of Indian or Hindu origin. What can we do to change this?
The generalization implicit in the question is only partially correct. If you visit bookshops in India, one finds that most of the books on Hindu traditions are actually written by Indians or Hindus themselves. The books published in the west are typically to expensive for libraries and individuals to acquire even though some publishers are making available cheaper Indian editions. And then, you do have a flourishing vernacular language publishing industry that publishes numerous good titles on Hinduism every year in India. One of the reasons why books by Western scholars get undue importance is that they are quoted profusely by their native informants – the Marxist historians of India, especially on matters related to Ancient and Modern India. And second, the influential Anglophone urban Indians in the metro cities is so divorced from his or her own traditions that they will lap up anything written on our culture by a westerner.
There are no short cuts to change this current situation in which fewer and fewer Indians and Hindus are writing on our own tradition day by day. Reading, reading, and reading are the only good antidote to this problem. We must invest money in buying books, either for personal study, or for donation to libraries or needy scholars in India. We must start schools in our temples (both in India and outside India) to educate our children on our traditions.
We must have deep faith in our traditions, and this should translate into leading our lives with a purpose and a plan, rather than wasting time and resources on non-productive items and activities like weekly parties.
Bad writings should be countered with good writings. Instead of wasting time shooting two byte emails everyday, knowledgeable Hindus should spend their time more constructively by writing scholarly articles for internet magazines, print magazines and journals.
We should also encourage our own children to take up Hinduism studies as their college majors (or at least as minors).
What suggestions do you have for Indian Americans who may want to voice their concern?
The bane of the Hindu American community is that Professors in religious studies of Indic origin are too timid to stick out their necks and protest against this blatant distortion of our traditions. In many cases, these academics are at the end of the careers but will not show the courage to move even their little finger when their activism is needed by the community. They should decide whether their loyalty lies with their religious and cultural heritage, or with dishonest colleagues who treat them as ‘pillow dictionaries’ (to borrow a phrase used by Doniger) or as inferior native informants anyway. If a dozen of them develop some spine, the problem will disappear within a few months. The pathetic timidity that Hindu professors show is unparalleled in other religious traditions. Ironically, these same professors sometimes do not hesitate to collude with their prejudiced colleagues and run down their own co-religionists in the process to save their own skins.
To the general Indian American and Hindu American community – I would remind that the first of the 26 divine qualities listed by Lord Krishna in the 16th chapter of the Gita is ‘fearlessness’. We should voice our objections to being demonized by Indologists and not bother about being labeled in pejorative terms. We must have faith in our traditions and should speak with conviction and without getting intimidated by others.
And finally, we should speak as a people who actually know and practice our tradition. This means, as I said above, that we should read, read and read about our heritage, and also continue to take steps to transmit our traditions to our children.
sign the petition to ask Penguin Books to withdraw the publication of
the book "The Hindus : An Alternative History". The petition clearly
points out the factual errors and clearly shows how grossly misleading
the book is about India and Hinduism.
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