Biases in Hinduism Studies: PART-I

By: Abhijit Bagal
September 12, 2004

Some Basic Concepts, Terms, and Definitions
The purpose of this essay is to highlight the growing dissatisfaction on the part of the Indian American Hindu Diaspora with the way Hinduism, Hindus, and India have been depicted and mis-portrayed in the American education system, and about the urgency to engage the system along the same lines as is already being done by other American minorities, such as the Native-Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. This article also explores how Hinduism and India studies directly or indirectly forms American perceptions of India and its culture, its products and services, and of the Indian American minority, and the need to bring objectivity and balance to these studies.

I am writing this article in my individual capacity. I am not affiliated with any political or religious organization. I consider myself a part of the Indian American Hindu Diaspora; I was born and raised in India and came to the U. S. in the nineties to go to graduate school, and having successfully obtained a Master’s Degree in Software Engineering from an American university, can claim to have some familiarity with the American educational system. I practice Sanatana Dharma (commonly referred to as Hinduism), one of the world’s most ancient cultures and the religion of about one billion of the earth’s inhabitants.

Some words in this article have been printed in bold and italicized to add emphasis. The first part of this article deals with some basic concepts, definitions, and terms that are frequently used in the successive sections. The material for this article was obtained from several articles, book reviews, and letters that have been published over the last few years and I’m grateful to their authors.

Sanatana Dharma is by its very essence a term which is devoid of sectarian leanings or ideological divisions. The two words, “Sanatana Dharma”, come from the ancient Sanskrit language. “Sanatana” is a Sanskrit word which denotes that which does not cease to be, that which is eternal. The word “Dharma” is a term which is only properly rendered into the English language with difficulty. Its approximate meaning is “Natural Law,” or those principles of reality which are inherent in the very nature and design of the universe. Thus the term Sanatana Dharma can be roughly translated to mean “Eternal Natural Law.”

Hindus (followers of Sanatana Dharma) believe in one, all-pervasive and all-loving Supreme Being. God is both transcendent and immanent in all things. God has unlimited names and forms, for example, God manifests as Lord Brahma to create the universe, as Lord Vishnu to maintain and preserve the universe, and as Lord Shiva to destroy the universe. Though worshiped in different ways in different religions and spiritual paths, there is only one God. Based on time, place, and circumstance, God incarnates on earth as an Avatar (Incarnation of God who descends on earth) to uphold the principles of religion and preach his message to the world. Thus, Hindus consider Lord Ram (also referred to as Rama or Ramachandra), and Lord Krishna, to be Avatars, non-different from God himself, who descended on earth to battle evil and protect the devotees.

The life and activities of Lord Ram are recorded in the great Sanskrit epic Ramayana (“The path of Ram”), known for its beauty in terms of Sanskrit poetry, evocative visualization, and profound dialogue. Ramayana has the distinction of being called the “Adi Kavya” (first or original poem) within the storehouse of Sanskrit literature, is composed of 24,000 couplets (48,000 lines) and thus eclipses the Iliad and Odyssey put together, which have 15,693 lines and 12,000 lines respectively. The Ramayana depicts the themes and ideals of righteous behavior, loyalty to family and kingdom, the balancing of good and evil, self-sacrifice for the betterment of society, morality, role of family, ideal relationships between father and son, brother to brother, friend to friend , and wife to husband.

The other Hindu epic, Mahabharata, depicts the activities of Lord Krishna and is composed of 100,000 verses. Mahatma Gandhi, in one of his last speeches, remarked that the Mahabharata was the permanent history of Man. The famous Bhagavad-Gita is a part of the Mahabharata, and consists of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Albert Einstein said: “When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous.”

Aldous Huxley wrote: “The Bhagavad-Gita is the most systematic statement of spiritual evolution of endowing value to mankind. It is one of the most clear and comprehensive summaries of perennial philosophy ever revealed; hence its enduring value is subject not only to India but to all of humanity.”

There are thousands of scholars in the U. S. specializing in some aspect of India and Hinduism. The India/Hinduism Studies industry consists of the development of knowledge about India and Hinduism, as well as, its distribution and retailing and includes academic research, and, school, college, and university education about India and its culture. The study of India and Hinduism in the U. S. is spread across several disciplines such as Anthropology, History, South Asian Studies, Religious Studies, Media and Journalism, and Literature and English.

As with any large academic field, Religious Studies in the U. S. is highly organized, with prestigious journals, chairs and programs of study. To control and regulate the field pertaining to Indian religions, there is the association known as RISA (Religions in South Asia). RISA is a unit within The American Academy of Religion (AAR), which is the official organization of academic scholars of Religious Studies in the Western world. Around fifty years ago, there was a partition of the guild of scholars who studied religion, and two organizations were created: AAR and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). AAR and SBL maintain very close relations and influences, and hold their annual conferences jointly. While SBL members study and promote the insiders’ view of Judeo-Christianity, AAR members are supposed to pursue the objective view from outside a given tradition and to not promote anything. With a membership of over 10,000 scholars — and growing — the AAR has enormous clout over the future direction of Religious Studies, and indirectly, over the humanities at large. Because the depictions of India in the West are inseparable from depictions of India’s religions, the work done by RISA scholars has implications that go well beyond the discipline’s boundaries. Religion is prominently featured in South Asian Studies, Asian Studies, International Studies, Women’s Studies, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, History, Literature, and Politics, and indirectly also influences Journalism, Film, and so forth.

Ramayana bashing in American Schools

Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Princeton, New Jersey, engaged in making grants in the areas of compassion and wisdom, writes in an article dated December 25, 2000:

“Our US Congressman, who is a member of the India Caucus and will be part of the Congressional delegation visiting India in early January, spent considerable time with me today specifically on the Ramayana portrayal by Professor Susan Wadley. The Congressman said that he was appalled at the inflammatory approach in the Ramayana material, and was especially concerned that it was done under Federal grant money as that could give it the aura of governmental stamp of approval. While there is the First Amendment of the Constitution giving freedom of speech, it is not the job of the Federal Government to spend the taxpayer’s money in support of what is essentially hate speech. He also felt that the standard in case of school material should be at a higher level of sensitivity towards minority communities in America, of which the Hindus are one. He promised to write to Washington supporting our position, and will also explore a way to get us in contact with the relevant authorities to participate in future grants of this kind. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

The above article by Rajiv Malhotra is with reference to Professor Susan Wadley’s work emerging from two National Endowment for the Humanities grants (1994 and 1997) received by her to train high school teachers to teach the Indian epic Ramayana to American students. In an internet article dated September 7, 2000, Susan Wadley describes herself as the Director of South Asia Center and Ford Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies, Syracuse University, and her work that led to the creation of the Ramayana course material and workbook as “A second WEB page project emerges from the two National Endowment for the Humanities institutes for high school teachers that I taught in 1994 and 1997. These four week institutes focused on the Ramayana and its history, its relationships to changing social and cultural norms, its presentation in art and drama. Teachers at the institutes created lesson plans and instructional materials that have been added to: these are found at http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/southasiacenter/ramayana/ .”

Many have complained that the workbook developed by Susan Wadley depicts Lord Ram as an invading-outsider, imperialist, oppressor, misogynist, and a racist and that the workbook sounds more like the rant of an over zealous racist than that of an “objective” and “neutral” scholar.

A letter written by Dr. David Gray, protesting the biased portrayal of Ramayana by Susan Wadley, was sent on December 1, 2000, to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) with a copy to Richard W Riley, who was the Secretary of Education, U. S. Department of Education, at that time. Some excerpts from the Letter are presented here:

“While the project generated useful course material, it also included what are clearly partisan and political readings of the epic, as well as outright inflammatory ‘cheap shots’ at a sacred text. This complaint is on behalf of United States citizens and parents of school children. Hinduism and Sikhism (which also worships Rama) are no longer merely about a far away exotic land that Americans have little to do with. We have Hindus and Sikhs right here in our classrooms today, amongst our office co-workers and as our neighbors. It is irresponsible for any multicultural school to introduce a protest song against Hindus and Sikhs that includes hate speech alleging that “Muslims were targeted”, or that certain people are “enslaved to form a monkey army” with the purported intention to “attack Muslims”. What does this do to foster mutual respect and understanding among different ethnic and religious communities in America’s sensitive tapestry, now represented in classrooms? Should Government funds be used to create such racially and religiously inflammatory teaching materials, denigrating to one’s classmates’ sensitivities, ironically in the name of multiculturalism? We understand that academic freedom, and the freedom of speech, allows us all in this country to espouse ideas that may be unpalatable to some. These ideas could be politically or culturally biased or even prejudiced. However, such bias about others’ religions and religious ideals, others’ sacred texts and spirituality, when it is presented to high school students by non-experts (high school teachers), would lead to a warped understanding of others’ history and religions and to unintended consequences, including stereotyping and hatred of minority groups. The particular version of the Ramayana that Professor Wadley includes in the lesson plans, and that she says is her favorite version of the many songs on the God-king Rama and the Ramayana, was composed by an anti-Hindu activist. This particular “song” is included in the essay titled, “The Ramayana and the Study of South Asia” (“Education About Asia”, volume 2, number 1, Spring 1997, page 36, by Susan S Wadley).”

Providing an analogy with other religions, the letter goes on to say:

“This same principle carries over to the study of other religions: for example, Christianity or Islam. Some of the scholars who have studied the Bible have read all or part of it as being patriarchal and oppressing women, Jews, homosexuals and blacks. There are others who criticize its violence and the way it is used to oppress the poor. Still others question the authenticity of the Bible and the real-life events of Jesus. Of course, most Christians see the Bible as containing God’s words and would be horrified at the “deconstruction” of their sacred text. Would we provide such portrayals of the Bible to our secondary school students, especially dramatized in performances of hate songs in the manner recommended by Professor Wadley? Christians would object vociferously at what they would call an unfair portrayal of their faith. Islamists and Muslims would similarly protest if one were to characterize Prophet Mohammed as a jihadist and an oppressor of women, even if that were supported by textual references. Scholars can debate controversial views on the Ramayana and the Bible all they want. We just don’t find it necessary to import such debates into classrooms where children are beginning to understand the basic contours of each religion. The question that Professor Wadley should have addressed is this: if I were a Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, or Moslem, how would I want my faith to be understood by those outside it? We believe she has not adequately understood this problem or has deliberately chosen to ignore it. Were this simply a scholarly interpretation, this would be an unfortunate, but not a public, issue.”

The “song” that the letter refers to is in worksheet 2 of the course material and instructs the students to “Read this song sung by an untouchable in north India.” Some lines from the song have been reproduced below:

“Once the Aryans on their horses invaded this land.

Then we who are the natives became the displaced.

Oh Rama, Oh Rama, You became the God and we the demons.

You portrayed our Hanuman as a monkey,

Oh Rama, you representative of the Aryans.

Muslims were targeted and “taught a lesson”.

To destroy Lanka, Oh Rama, you

Formed us into a monkey army.

And today you want us,

The working majority,

To form a new monkey army

And attack Muslims.”

Lord Ram is thus depicted as an “Aryan Invader” in school textbooks for American kids. The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) itself is highly controversial with some scholars suggesting that it is a colonial and racist construct of the 19th century. Some scholars have suggested that there was no invasion but a gradual migration leading to the Aryan Migration Theory (AMT). Some other scholars have suggested that there was no invasion or migration, that the Aryans were indigenous to India, and that the term Aryan does not refer to a caste or a race, rather it refers to one with a noble behavior. There is a fourth group of scholars who say that people from India migrated to other parts of the world such as Central Asia and Europe and spread the Vedic (Based on the Vedas, books written in Sanskrit, the largest and most ancient body of literature preserved by mankind) civilization there, and, not the other way round – This is known as the Out of India Theory (OIT). Unfortunately, many scholars such as Professor Wadley often fall into the trap of labeling all of India’s problems as ‘Hindu’, whereas they would not label the very high incidence of child abuse, rape, massive prison population, drug and other addictions, and high incidence of clinical depression in the U. S. as ‘Judeo-Christian’ problems.

To be continued…….

Abhijit Bagal

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