This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.
Late last month, days before the US presidential elections, a prominent media outlet published an article on Indian and Hindu-American politics. The piece, full of polemics, was an apparent attempt to promote the stocks of the Silicon Valley, CA, Democrat Ro Khanna. Besides singing paeans to Khanna, the article’s theme revolved around the terms Hindutva and Hindu Nationalism without much context and any nuanced exposition of those terms. The piece also attacked several Hindu groups and individuals alike for their advocacy.
The piece, written by an India-American journalist, drew strong reactions from the diaspora groups, including this tweet response from Saagar Enjeti, a fellow at Steamboat and Hudson Institute.
The piece in question, and the response to it, indicates a phenomenon, a turmoil of sorts, facing the Hindu community around the world. The dissonance stems from discord and disconnect between how the Hindu faith practitioners see themselves and how the media and academia dominated by Western scholarship present them.
Hindu-Americans have also been fighting an on-going battle against the misrepresentation of Hinduism in American textbooks. Arvind Sharma, the Berks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University, in his paper “Dharma and the Academy: A Hindu Academic’s View” has taken up the issue of this turmoil that, according to him, “has come to be characterized by a sharp debate, which has also spilled over into journalism and the Internet.”
The turmoil Sharma talks about has been brewing for over a decade. It is part of the Hindu community’s ongoing awakening in post-colonial India that has gained considerable momentum since the election (and re-election) of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister. As the turmoil continues, Hindus have not only started resenting the misrepresentation of their culture, faith, texts, and traditions in media and academia, they have also begun to present vigorous disputations against those misrepresentations.
To get to the root cause of misrepresentations, it is crucial to understand the modalities of exchanging information in the study of religions. Sharma presents a fourfold typology for such an exchange: insider to insider, outsider to outsider, outsider to insider, and insider to outsider.
In pre-modern times, Sharma argues, most interactions in the realm of religious studies were from insider to insider. In the context of India, particularly during the colonial time, outsider to outsider became the primary mode of transmission for Hinduism.
During colonial times, non-native Western scholars started sharing information about Hinduism with other non-native scholars (outsider to outsider). “The West, however, began to control the intellectual discourse in its colonies…and the insiders to these traditions began to be profoundly affected, even in their self-understanding of their own religious traditions, by Western accounts,” writes Sharma. This altering of the self-understanding was due to outsider to insider channel. The current tumult, however, is a byproduct of a vociferous attempt by the native Hindus to change the flow of information from inside to outside.
Sharma claims that with the Hindu-American community reaching a critical demographic mass in North America and India, its ‘response threshold’ has been breached. When a faith community crosses its response threshold, it becomes hard for outsiders to ignore the community’s response to misrepresentations. A response threshold is crossed, according to Erick Sharp (The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987), “when it becomes possible for the believer to advance his or her own interpretation against that of the scholar.”
Sharma observes that protests aren’t necessarily about the facts but the interpretation of the Hindu tradition by academia and media. Indian Intellectual Tradition has a long history of disputation among native scholars. For example, Nyaya realism has a tradition of argumentation with Buddhist phenomenalism at both epistemological and ontological levels. In the present context, however, it is crucial to make a distinction between academic/intellectual work and polemics. Upon examination, many Western presentations of the Hindu tradition may fall into one of the various kinds of Hinduphobic discourses.
One of the fascinating concepts in quantum theory is the observer effect, which states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality. One can apply this notion of observer bias to the study of Hinduism by Western scholars. According to Sharma, this principle “provides a basis for examining the fear of the Hindus that Western scholars may be altering Hinduism in the very process of studying it, and the change thus brought about is not for the better.”
The current effort by the Hindu faith community must be seen as an attempt to reclaim the agency in representing and defining Hinduism. At the very least, non-native agents cannot be the sole arbitrators of the native traditions.
Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He writes frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic Knowledge Tradition, and current affairs in several media outlets.