Tag Archives: #hindusim

Hinduphobia in Academia Leaves Students Traumatized

The Guru or teacher has always been a hallowed concept for the Indian subcontinent. A teacher is respected as the moral compass of the community, and responsible for the accurate enlightenment of the general population, in Hindu society. 

The key term here is responsible. Teachers, or academics, are responsible to their students to ensure their work is accurate, free of overt bias, and open to corrections when not. So what do Hindu students do when faced with teachers who don’t?

These standards have not been met when discussing the case surrounding some American Indologists and their study of the Hindu religion. As a community, we must recognize that irrational prejudice against the Hindu community is a definitive problem within vast swaths of Western academia. Scholars have allowed their personal beliefs against Hinduism to influence their work, leading to the crude misrepresentation of the Hindu community in academic circles. In order to evade responsibility for their Hinduphobic content, Indologists have labeled protest from the Hindu community as “Extremism” or a “Hindutva conspiracy.” Not only have student protests been ignored, but pleas from religious organizations and temples have been declined as well. 

Last month, a coalition of 75 Hindu temples and religious organizations sent a letter to Rutgers University regarding the biased works of Professor Audrey Truschke. Truschke had previously misattributed the works of another scholar, to claim that the original Valmiki Ramayan had a quote where Devi Sita abuses Bhagwan Rama – something that was swiftly contradicted by the academic she was quoting. The temple letter stands in solidarity with the students, and states that the coalition “could not help but feel intensely hurt and abused when a Professor uses her authority and deliberately misinterprets Hindu sacred texts or slanders Hindu deities while rationalizing such behavior as “academic freedom.” 

American Indologists are allowed to publish these works under the guise of academic freedom. But what does “academic freedom” mean when used as a cover to protect action that puts vulnerable students at risk? According to the Freedom Forum Institute, academic freedom allows a university to teach what it pleases without government interference and for teachers to teach without interference from university officials. Nowhere does it deny students (vulnerable to the power yielded by tenured academics), and minority communities, their own free speech rights to peacefully protest. 

The temples state, “Bigotry and Hinduphobia on social media and in scholarship cannot be excused as academic freedom, especially when these remarks have grave consequences for how Hindu students at Rutgers will be perceived by their own peers.”  As a student who faced discrimination due to the misrepresentation of Hinduism in California textbooks, I cannot state the importance of these words enough. In California, kids as young as sixth grade had to face discrimination due to how schools taught Hinduism. In 2016, a significant advocacy movement led by Hindus in California paved the way for positive change. Similarly, the temple letter represents an effort from the broader Hindu American community to stand against systematic discrimination – making it invaluable support to students dealing with bias that results from Hinduphobic teachings.

For years American Indologists have ignored these pleas and petitions for correction or even a hearing. Any student, parent, scholar, or even an academic with an opposing view has been ignored. All this while those misattribute quotes or fake translations, choose to put out claims that they are facing “harassment”.

On the morning of July 6th, 2021, just days after the collective plea from Hindu temples, the SASAC, or the South Asian Scholars Activist Collective, released a statement regarding their “harassment.” The report included the “Hindutva Harassment Manual,” or tips for those who had been harassed by “Hindutva extremists.” The SASAC comprises Indology scholars across the United States and has Truschke on its board. 

In its attempt to gaslight Hindus, the manual has some glaring flaws. The most important one being its definition of Hinduphobia, which in fact, denies the very existence of such a term. The manual says, “Hinduphobia” rests on the false notion that Hindus have faced systematic oppression throughout history and in present times… Anti-Hindu bias, on the other hand, cannot be easily linked to casualties on such horrific scales.” 

The SASAC academics are scholars with countless resources at their command. So one has to wonder at the ease with which they ignore Hindu persecution. This amnesia includes the 1971 Bengali Hindu genocide — the largest the world has seen since the Holocaust, whose horrors documented in numerous US State Government reports, by no less an icon than Senator Kennedy. The cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus and even the decimation of Hindu minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan are blithely ignored in this attempted body count of casualties. 

Barely after I had finished writing this article, I learned about another outrage. A cabal of Indologists has put together the “Dismantling Global Hindutva” conference which is an overtly political attempt to malign the religion of Hinduism under the guise of “fighting Hindu extremism.” They have done so without taking the input of the Hindu diaspora or representing them in any way. Many of the universities affiliated with the conference are unaware of such a politically motivated conference occurring, underlining the lengths that the academics behind the conference will go to in order to perpetrate their hate. To join the protest against this bigoted event, please read this petition

The SASAC’s denial of Hinduphobia has a simple purpose; to deflect from their wrongdoing, and importantly, silence any protest regarding their works – no matter how legitimate – by ascribing them all to Hindu extremism.

In doing this, the SASAC breaches a fundamental pillar. As Professor Arvind Sharma puts it, as academia is allowed to criticize the practices of a population freely, it is the fundamental right of the people in question to critique academia. Attempting to take away that right by removing their sense of accountability as an academic allows others to discriminate against the community in question. The standard set by today’s intellectuals will determine the way the American curriculum will teach future generations about Hinduism. 

The price of staying quiet is high and borne by the most vulnerable. Just hear the words of Aishwarya, a graduate student “I joined Rutgers with the impression that it’s a very reputed university and will give me the perfect environment to grow. However, when I heard the comments of Professor Truschke about my faith, my scriptures, and my Gods, it broke my confidence. I felt scared about mentioning my faith, that students will judge me and might hate me because that is what they are learning in the class or on social media.” It behooves us all to stand with Aishvarya and help her feel safe.

Chinmaya is a CoHNA volunteer and student journalist with a passion for Hindu human rights and politics.


Insider to Outsider: Reversing the Trend in Hindu Discourse

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 frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic Knowledge Tradition, and current affairs in several media outlets.