Indology and Indologists – Flattering to Deceive: Part II
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In Part I of this two-part article, we saw the growth of Indological studies spurred by the Protestant scholars in German universities. The loci shifted to America after World War II, and today some of the most damaging narratives about India, Hindus, and Hinduism are produced in the United States of America. We are involved in a complicated and difficult battle with them because many Indian scholars, in their desire for academic titles, jobs, and professional survival, simply carry forward the influential but noxious scholarship undermining our civilizational ethos if not posing a danger to even our physical existence. This part focuses on the work of these modern Western Indologists and the rebuttals by a small group of scholars of both Indian and international origins.
Read Part I here:
Modern Indologists and Sanskritists: Sheldon Pollock
Rajiv Malhotra (The Battle for Sanskrit) discusses Sheldon Pollock, a contemporary Indologist who represents the disturbing efforts to destabilize India and undermine Indian culture and tradition in American universities. These scholars desperately seek to separate the “secular” and “spiritual” aspects of Sanskrit today. However, beneath the surface of many superficial praises (Pollock even speaks in Sanskrit on public platforms), the entire culture and tradition of the country undergo a “deconstruction” that is destructive. Pollock constructs, in dense language, Sanskrit grammar, Sanskrit “ideology,” and even the Ramayana as “oppressive” to Dalits, women, and Muslims. These scholars seek to explain the foundations for “oppression” of people in India by kings and Brahmin priests, the expansion of Hinduism to Far-east countries, and even Nazism too! The antipathy toward present-day “Hindutva” political parties informs Pollock’s scholarship, according to Malhotra.
Pollock also goes on to claim that British and Muslim rulers helped revive Sanskrit, but the forward castes firmly opposed them. As with many Indologists, Pollock posits Buddhism as a great reformist religion taking on the might of oppressive Hinduism. Sanskrit allegedly received a major boost when Buddhists started writing in Sanskrit. Prior to this, Sanskrit was only for mindless, orally recited rituals, as per Pollock’s construction of a dim past. The Jataka Tales of Buddhist origin are, in fact, an inspiration for the Ramayana, he claims. Buddha favoring Pali and Jains favoring Magadhi is presented as proof positive for the rejection of the Vedas.
Reminiscent of German Indology, the closed academic circles in American universities repeat damaging theories in various papers, literature reviews, and academic meetings. Pollock and his followers believe that the most perfect language ever devised by the human mind can only destroy the plurality of India, aggravate inequality as in the past, would be a reason for violent nationalism, and might even cause future slavery. Sanskrit is a dead language, fit only for study like other dead languages like Greek or Latin, Pollock recites in Sanskrit.
Balagangadhara (Cultures Differ Differently) discusses Pollock’s writings about a “hidden chapter” on adhikara, laying the foundation of the entire Mimamsa Sutras, which is allegedly about cultural inequality. According to Pollock, this was the work of the “most sophisticated circle of Sanskrit intellectuals in late Vedic India—the Brahmins”. Pollock further says, “Neither does it accord with common sense to destroy food in ritual fire or slaughter animals at the cultic altar, and yet the Veda authorises doing just this”.
Balagangadhara says only someone utterly ignorant of political and moral theories can write such breathtakingly silly things about discourses on inequality. If one knows anything about the agro-industry or hotel industry of today, one cannot wax eloquent about animal “slaughter” and the destruction of food in Vedic India. Pollock uses normative “horror” to drive home that Brahminical “priests” of India allegedly denied “humanity” to the “oppressed”. Importantly, the talk about texts and their meaning subtly shifts to moralizing, a common technique for Indologists.
Wendy Doniger, arguably the most controversial contemporary American Indologist, pursues a peculiar brand of studying Sanskrit texts through a Freudian lens. Her obsession with sexual themes and themes of exploitation of women, the lower classes, or Brahminical hegemony colors practically all her writings. Her books reveal a deep antipathy towards Hindus with misrepresentations and falsification of Indian history, politics, traditions, culture, antiquity, scriptures, deities, and important rituals.
Her forays into studying Hinduism and Indian texts lead her to claim that Rama was a sex addict and an oppressor of lower castes and women and that Laxmana had sexual fantasies about Sita. Many such Freudian free-will interpretations of Hindu texts make her theses both provocative and simplistic, written seemingly to titillate and provoke rather than to inform and understand. Balagangadhara says most of us remain silent about these academic assaults because we simply do not know how to respond. In perhaps her most controversial book, “Hindus: An Alternative History,” Doniger manages to sexualize almost all the scriptures Indians hold in regard: the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, and the Vedas too.
Vishal Agarwal (The New Stereotypes of Hindus in Western Indology), along with Aditi Banerjee and Bharat Gupt, give an exhaustive page-by-page rebuttal of Doniger’s book. They show, in excruciating detail, how Doniger makes gross errors and that her knowledge of India at the basic textbook level in history, geography, and scriptural interpretations is not just lacking but false. She has a persistent obsession with themes of sex, rape, and lust and interpretats scriptures and avataras using Freudian analysis. That neither is she trained in Freudian analysis nor is she actually analyzing individual actions of people she knows or has offered therapy to, makes her “scholarship” nothing more than scandal sheets and yellow journalism. Her work seems more a reflection of Doniger herself, say the authors. Our traditional scholars approach a scripture with bhakti (devotion) or with a quest for jnana (knowledge). Freudian and sexually obsessed interpretations amount to either wanton intellectual violence or perversion.
A strong leftist ideology with the consistent binaries of the exploiter and the exploited inform her scholarship. Vishal Agarwal says her book is more appropriately an alternative to history. Doniger claims that all that is good in Hinduism is because of Islamic or Christian influence; she exonerates the iconoclasm Islamic invaders; she presents Hindu rulers as cruel; she labels Brahmin priests as evil and eternal exploiters of society; she is obsessed with sex and any depictions of sex among Hindu gods and deities; she argues that Krishna’s call to Arjuna in the Gita to battle evil as “encouraging” violence. That Doniger has mentored scores of students and influenced hundreds of them make us wonder about the purpose of her scholarship.
Rajiv Malhotra calls her students “Wendy’s Children”. Doniger, unfortunately, has rejected all attempts to engage with traditionalists and those who have critiqued her by saying that she has “moved beyond” Hindus. Hit and run scholars in academe have to pay no price, it seems.
The Indologists and the Sanskritists: Vedic Studies, Varna, and Caste
Balagangadhara, in his book Cultures Differ Differently, deconstructs English Indologists. This and the next two sections are a summary of the last three chapters of the book — The Vedic Society and a Brain Stasis; The Indology and Sociology of Varna; Knowledge, Bullshit, and the Study of India. Balagangadhara says that the sole focus of Indology and Sanskrit Studies enterprises appears to be to dig deep into the “secrets” of Indian culture and unearth its camouflaged defences of “inequality,” “oppression,” and such other immoralities. The telos (purpose) of translating Indian texts is to merely support one’s favourite sermonized interpretation of a text, he argues.
He writes: “Witzel, Mancur Olson, Wendy Doniger, Brian Smith, Stephanie Jamison, and Joel Brereton are some of these Indologists or Sanskritists who display profound ignorance when they comment on Indian social systems, including caste. Contemporary social scientists gleefully accept this rubbish produced by Indologists and spin sillier stories about ‘Hinduism,’’”the caste system,’ and so on. For about two centuries now, Indologists have claimed to have found this varna system and its ideology in ancient Indian texts. The first is in the Purushasukta, the hymn from the Rigveda (10.90), which allegedly provides ‘a cosmological justification of the four-tiered caste system’ by inscribing ‘the social hierarchy of caste’ and that ‘the division of society into four classes as natural and God-ordained’.”
Balagangadhara says that in this vast land with a timescale of at least 3000 years, it is difficult to find one single coherent “theory” of varna in the indigenous texts. However, scholars have based themselves on conjectures founded on fragmentary texts from three thousand or more years ago to speculate on the nature of Indian society. However, the Indological representation of caste as varna gives a distorted view of Indian reality in both modern and ancient times.
Jamison and Brereton
As Balagangadhara explains, the most authoritative English translation of the Rigveda (Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton, 2014) summarizes the state of Vedic studies in the introduction to the translation. Apparently, the text is the product of a very small group of people and deals with issues relevant to “a very small percentage of the population — the priests.” However, the existence of Vedic rituals is the only evidence we have for the “religion” and its “priests” discovered by these white scholars.
Despite many scholarly warnings, Indologists piece together disjointed remarks (incidental similes, asides, and a few direct references) to make authoritative statements about the “political, social, and religious developments of a 1300-year period” over a region bigger than Europe from 4,000 years ago. Jamison and Brereton define the Vedic people, or “Aryas” as those “who sacrifice to the gods, who adhere to Vedic customs, who speak Indo-Aryan languages, and who in other ways identify themselves with Vedic culture”. This is an empty statement, says Balagangadhara. He asks: who are the gods? What are the Vedic customs and sacrifices? How does one adhere to a Vedic culture?
“Manu” also means “man”; maanusha could also mean “human beings” or “sons of man,” which is how this word is used today. It does not have to refer to the “tribe” of an individual called Manu, as Jamison and Brereton choose to translate. It seems that Indologists have the need to postulate a shared ancestor and common descent in their interpretations – no doubt drawing from their own Christian belief systems. There is no evidence of any fights and battles, yet Indologists declare that Aryans conquered the Daasyus to “spread” Hinduism. Indologists think that the fundamental unit of Vedic society was a “tribe”. There ignore the fact that there were also families, clans, and confederations.
Thus, one is interpreting “words” from an allegedly “religious” text as though the words constitute evidence of sociological facts and organizational charters. The concept of tribe is in the dustbin of social science academia due to the impossibility of defining it. “Tribe” is a key but obsolete concept from anthropology’s early history that usually served colonial, administrative, and ideological purposes to mainly paint local/native people as “primitive” or “backward”. If neither anthropologists nor sociologists have been able to develop a coherent understanding of tribal societies with their copious data, how plausible is it that Indologists are right regarding their reading of a society 4,000 years ago based on deciphering fragmentary texts?
Jamison and Brereton say that the Rigvedic hymns persuade, induce, and constrain the gods to mobilize their powers to benefit the worshippers. This success explains how Hinduism spread in India at all. Apparently, ritual power maps equivalences between the three worlds of ritual, cosmic, and everyday life by “homology”. Among other things, and according to these Indologists, Vedic ideology is the belief in the power of the word, thus offering higher status to the Brahmin since he comes from the mouth of the Cosmic Being. This is the nature and quality of “research” of these Indologists, says Balagangadhara.
Michael Witzel and Mikael Aktor on Caste
Indologists often use texts with only English translations and from different times and places. How appropriate is it to treat them as if the administrative and political systems under discussion were one? Balagangadhara provides the example of Michael Witzel, who uses “classes” as the equivalent of “varna“.
Witzel believes that an incipient class (varna) structure consisting of nobles, priest/poets, and the “people” organized in clans (gotra), tribes, and occasional tribal unions. Balagangadhara says Witzel is wrong almost on all counts. A class might consist of members from different tribes, but a social class is not a tribal aggregate. Witzel’s description of a “society” organized into tribes and clans by an “incipient” class structure is sociologically impossible. Witzel makes the Rigveda a sociological text par excellence when every other Indologist thinks that the Rigveda is a religious text. Witzel’s reference to “society,” “social class,” and “class structure” when using “varna,” undercut multiple domain theories in the social sciences today. The careless use of terms arising from ignorance of social-scientific results of the last 200 years is a general issue that infects these so-called Vedic studies.
Balagangadhara also shows how Mikael Aktor (Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmaśāstra, 2018) gathers evidence from the texts and commentaries across two thousand years to “show” varna ideology as existing across all centuries and to prove that Brahmins legitimized oppression. Each of Aktor’s references picks out a small fragment of the respective text: a half-sentence; one, two, or three verses; part of a story; a paragraph or so. In any other domain, this way of working with texts having different historical and geographical origins would meet objections concerning methodology, chronology, the ways of culling highly selective fragments, issues of translation, and problems in the nature, genre, transmission, redaction, and context of the cited texts. However, as Balagangadhara notes, instead, one leaves the chapter with the distinct impression that all these texts somehow represent the “Brahmanical ideology” behind “the Hindu social structure”.
Why can’t Indologists leave us alone? There are a few great exceptions (like Michel Danino, Koenraad Elst, scholars from the Ghent School of Belgium, David Frawley, and such) who debate and disagree in the best of our Vaada (debating) traditions and yet do not attempt to undermine our civilization and culture. Amazingly, millions of manuscripts in the Indian repositories, though describing everything under the sun, rarely concerned themselves with descriptions of other cultures.
The constant outpouring of European authors across colonial times, starting with Hegel, Marx, Weber, and others, about India was that of a static society and a stagnant civilization. The only “knowledge” the European missionaries had of India was that “heathens” and “idolaters” populated most parts of the Indian continent, with little to learn from them. Modern secularized narratives do away with the idolatry part, but the lack of anything worth learning from Indians stays intact.
German Indology, perhaps irrelevant today for most people, has had some important consequences. Firstly, the Aryan theory simply refuses to go away, creating a great friction among Indians in a bizarre North-South divide. Counter-narratives meet with incredible resistance from ill-informed citizens and politicians, the partly informed media, and an agenda-filled academia. Post-colonial and post-independence academia continued with the German Indological tradition of reading and interpreting texts from a linear historicist perspective. This was an intense assault on the traditional way of approaching our texts. Indians deal with their history in ways that western Indologists cannot easily comprehend. Rama or Krishna may have never existed, but the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are eternally true. The indifference to the historicity of the characters was the characteristic Indian way of looking at the scriptures.
Secondly, the old German Indology has now morphed into a more vicious form of moden Indology emanating from American universities. Again, we have allowed outsiders — in the sense that they do not give importance to our tradition — to control the narrative. The origin of the experts, of course, does not define insiders and outsiders. A person who accepts the traditional view and does not succumb to the time-bound narratives; a person who reads with a sense of humility and accepts the author of the text as smarter than the reader (as Vishwa Adluri says); or a person who seeks spiritual freedom in the texts and not themes for passing judgements separates the insider from the outsider.
Today, Indologists in American universities and their followers in India produce complex theories in dense language, seeking to undermine and attack our knowledge of ourselves through our stories, cultures, and traditions. The mutual give and take; the patting and applauding of each other in a closed circle of researchers; academic posts; travel grants; and the granting of awards bear an eerie resemblance to the dreadful scholarship of German Indology.
Western narratives have become true descriptions of our world in many areas. The discourses of the Aryan-Dravidian divide, the caste system with the evil priests at the top, the breaking up of Sanatana Dharma into various conflicting “religions” in the Abrahamic mould (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism), the existence of the good ‘Hinduism’ and the bad “Hindutva,” the deliberate lies about history to exonerate violent and genocidal invaders, and the persistent bashing of the so-called “forward castes” have not changed across the past two/three centuries of Indological studies. Effortlessly, the Indologists, Sanskritists, and social scientists drawing upon each other’s works have accomplished the incredible feat of making “the caste system” synonymous with “discrimination” and “oppression,” supplanting the British “class” hierarchy, American “racial” inequality, the South African “apartheid” policy, and Nazi ideology.
Balagangadhara says: “Indologists use discredited theories from earlier social sciences to put across outlandish claims regarding a culture about which they are ignorant. Contemporary social sciences draw upon these ignorant claims to put across equally outlandish claims about human societies and cultures, again in ignorance of what the Indological claims rest upon. The social sciences and Indology enter a death dance where neither participant dies but knowledge does. Thus, there is a vicious relationship between Orientalism and the social sciences. Neither the social sciences nor Indology deliver anything of substance or interest either about ancient or modern India.”
Indology, anthropology, sociology, and political science each aggravate the other’s problems by importing facts and ideas from each other. What blinds intelligent men and women when they present ignorance as knowledge? Balagangadhara says the explanation is in how this presentation and delusion occur —moralising talk and normative language. “Inequality,” “discrimination,” “injustice,” and such other notions determine the talk about Indian society, culture, and people by Indologists. Adluri shows what is ultimately at stake in our attempts to challenge the Indology project: freeing the ancients from being subjects of interrogation and permitting the ancients to question us moderns instead. We need to be strict in calling to question any attempted studies of India by people who do not respect the traditional culture of the land. It is an uphill task and we have miles to go. The rebuttals have begun but they have not permeated into the general consciousness yet.
Selected References and Further Reading
- Jain, M., & Jain, S. (2022). “The India They Saw” (Volumes 1 to 4). New Delhi: Prabhat Prakashan.
- Parker, G. (2011). The Making of Roman India (Greek Culture in the Roman World). Cambridge University Press.
- Jalki, D. (2023). Evolution of the figure of the Brahmin in early Muslim writings (2022), Oñati Socio-Legal Series, https://doi.org/10.35295/osls.iisl/0000-0000-0000-1318
- Ganguly, S. (2017). Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India: Visions of Horror, Allegories of Enlightenment. Routledge India.
- Chaudhuri, N. (1974). Scholar Extraordinary: The Life of Professor the Rt. Hon. Friedrich Max Müller, P.D. London: Chatto & Windus.
- Aich, P. & Nair, M.V.R. (2014). Truths: 500 Years — European Christians in History. Oldenburg, Germany: Acharyya Publishers.
- Aich, P. (2004). Lies With Long Legs: Discoveries, Scholars, Science, Enlightenment. Publisher: Samskriti.
- Adluri, V., & Bagchee, J. (2014). The Nay Science: A History of German Indology. Oxford University Press.
- Adluri, V., & Bagchee, J. (2018). Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism. Anthem Press.
- Sukthankar, V. S. (2016). On the Meaning of the Mahabharata. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
- Malhotra, R. (2016). The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive? New Delhi: HarperCollins.
- Agarwal, V. (2015). The New Stereotypes Of Hindus In Western Indology. CreateSpace.
- Balagangadhara, S. N., De Roover J., (Ed.) & Rao, S. (Ed.) (2021). Cultures Differ Differently: Selected Essays of S.N. Balagangadhara. Routledge India.
- Balagangadhara, S. N. (1993). The Heathen in His Blindness. Brill Academic Publishing.
- Balagangadhara, S.N., & Jhingran, D. (2015). Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem. CreateSpace.
- Malhotra, R., & Reddy, D. (2023). Ten Heads of Ravana: A Critique of Hinduphobic Scholars. Gurgaon: Garuda Prakashan Pvt. Ltd.