Western Indology and academic Apartheid

Colonial hegemony of Indology

Those who are at the forefront of expressing their disgust and anguish at the act of withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s snigger of a book on the Hindus are a very distinct and peculiar type. They are a type which, because they have been the beneficiaries of the munificence of the “outsiders” can hardly ever come round to accept that the “insiders” may one day speak and talk back at “outsiders” who had hitherto been the sole arbiter and definer of their image. It was, most certainly, one of these types who must have peer-reviewed Doniger’s stuff on behalf of her publishers – surprisingly that act and actor has so far managed to avoid being discovered and discussed.  This type has modeled itself “on its departed counterpart” and has always viewed “any emphasis on the ‘glories of ancient India’ as an act of Hindu Fundamentalism.”[1]

Veteran archaeologist and historian, Professor D.K. Chakrabarti of the University of Cambridge in his masterly study of colonial Indology, quite succinctly describes such a type which began to thrive post-independence as the “ebb of nationalism died down.” The Indian historian, notes Chakrabarti, “became increasingly concerned with the large number of grants, scholarships, fellowships and even occasional jobs to be won in the Western universities, there was a scramble for new respectability to be gained by toeing the  Western line of thinking about India and Indian history.”[2]

In such an atmosphere and scramble, there could thus be no question of working to loosen the “stranglehold of Western Indology” nor of scrutinizing its implications for India. The only sure and certain way to academic and material success was by adopting this attitude of non-challenge and non-questioning. So dictatorial and closed has been this type, that whenever they perceived some rumbling against the “premises of Western indology”, rumblings which arose from people who were insiders but with “no control of major national historical organizations”, they summarily dismissed these as “fundamentalists of some kind, mere dhotiwalas of no intellectual consequence.”[3]

The Natives strike back

This same sneer was evident when one saw these types talk about the Shiksha Bachao Andolan and its democratic protests against the portrayal of Hindus done by an outsider to the tradition. Couched in sophisticated words and expressions made purportedly in favour of the freedom of expression and of interpretation was a venomous feeling which brooks no opposition, resistance or talking back to the external interpretation of India. One of the grandsons of the Mahatma, an otherwise erudite and reticent gentleman-scholar and former bureaucrat, has recently expressed such an indignation and sneer at the attitude of talking back, of questioning and expressing dissent.

A sense of racial superiority towards Indians and their tradition has almost always been the hallmark of Western Indologists or Western interpreters of Indian civilization. R.C.Majumdar pointed at this tendency saying that Europeans “would hardly be in a position to write the history of India, so long as they do not cast aside the assumptions of racial superiority and cease to regard Indians as an inferior race.”[4]  This sense of superiority indigenised after the colonial masters departed and manifested itself through perpetually negative portrayals of Hindus and their traditions. Such an indigenised negative portrayal was also in line with the continuing negativities on India in the Western academia and together it became a formidable generator of “alternate” histories of India. These alternate readings, in course of time, became the mainstream by sidelining the actual alternate readings of Hindus, their manners and their customs.

In his latest study on the philosophical unity of Hinduism, Rajiv Malhotra, for instance, describes this tendency, in the American – Western context, of controlling and of distorting the reading and description of India. He terms this as a “form of cultural and civilisational imperialism which takes the spiritual traditions of a people and distorts and dilutes them so as to appeal to the imperial palate.”[5] The attempt has always been to portray the “other” traditions as either overtly otherworldly or irrational, weird, perpetuating voodoo-like cults and systems that required interpreting, debunking or rationalizing – the manifestations of the sense of the “mission civilisatrice.” Malhotra points out how:

The Indian source gets depicted in one of the two extreme ways: on the one hand, it is abusive of women, hopelessly backward, ridden with weird notions of caste, dowry, sati etc., and ruled by some very strange-looking half animal gods; on the other, it is full of romantic otherworldly ‘mystical wisdom’ that has great potential but lacks ‘rationality’, which the West must supply.[6]

In addition to this, the entire exercise of evolving a false alternate reading of India has a deeper motive for dominance which works out through a strengthening of the “control” of depiction, as Malhotra argues, “…the act of bolstering one’s own coherence, while aggressively undermining the coherence of others, is…central to the fight for world dominance.”[7]

Reading Indian History

In a discussion on Indian history and historians, Ram Swarup has drawn a parallel between these Indian intellectual baggage-carriers of the West and the “Hindu munshis” historians of the Mughal court who ingratiatingly added colour to the deeds of their patrons while whitewashing or side-stepping their gory acts. Describing this section, Ram Swarup cites H.M.Elliot’s preface to the latter’s “The History of India, as told by its Own Historians”:

These deficiencies are more to be lamented, where, as sometimes happens, a Hindú is the author. From one of that nation we might have expected to have learnt what were the feelings, hopes, faiths, fears, and yearnings, of his subject race; but, unfortunately, he rarely writes unless according to order or dictation, and every phrase is studiously and servilely turned to flatter the vanity of an imperious Muhammadan patron. There is nothing to betray his religion or his nation, except, perhaps, a certain stiffness and affectation of style, which show how ill the foreign garb befits him. With him, a Hindú is “an infidel,” and a Muhammadan “one of the true faith,’ and of the holy saints of the calendar, he writes with all the fervour of a bigot. With him, when Hindús are killed, “their souls are despatched to hell,” and when a Muhammadan suffers the same fate, “he drinks the cup of martyrdom.” He is so far wedded to the set phrases and inflated language of his conquerors, that he speaks of “the light of Islám shedding its refulgence on the world,” of “the blessed Muharram,” and of “the illustrious Book.” He usually opens with a “Bismillah,” and the ordinary profession of faith in the unity of the Godhead, followed by laudations of the holy prophet, his disciples and descendants, and indulges in all the most devout and orthodox attestations of Muhammadans. One of the Hindú authors here noticed, speaks of standing in his old age, “at the head of his bier and on the brink of his grave,” though he must have been fully aware that, before long, his remains would be burnt, and his ashes cast into the Ganges.[8]

But what struck Elliot even more, as Ram Swarup narrates, was this continuing denial even “after the tyrant was no more and the falsification of history through terror was no longer necessary”.[9] Elliot found that “there is not one of this slavish crew who treats the history of his native country subjectively, or presents us with the thoughts, emotions, and raptures which a long oppressed race might be supposed to give vent to, when freed from the tyranny of its former masters, and allowed to express itself in the natural language of the heart, without constraint and without adulation.[10] In the present day the trend continues with a blending of these types showing a “remarkable continuity.” “This tribe of Hindu munshis or “slavish crew” of Elliot” writes Ram Swarup:

Have a long life and show a remarkable continuity. Instead of diminishing, their number has multiplied with time. Today, they dominate the universities, the media and the country’s political thinking. They were reinforced by another set of historians – those who carry the British tradition. One very important thing in common with them is that they continue to look at India through the eyes of Muslims and British rulers even long after their rule has ceased.[11]

Any historian or scholar, who, wading against the tide had as much as the temerity to question the established reading was sidelined, labeled as an obscurantist and was academically boycotted. The fate of R.C.Majumdar and his seminal three volume study of the freedom movement in India continue to remain a glaring example of this academic apartheid. Just because Majumdar refused to toe the official Congress line of glorifying certain leaders’ contribution to the movement while ignoring others, just because he refused to examine the Indian freedom struggle through the lenses of dialectical-materialism, his work was ignored and suppressed. The alternate reading was not allowed to emerge – this trend continues to this day when academic attempts to talk back are silenced through a silent boycott at various levels – of publishing, of reviews, of promotion and dissemination.

Those who have expressed a problem with this talking back by the “insiders” deliberately choose to suppress some other realities. The fact that Doniger refused to engage with Indian academics over her “Hindus” has not been discussed. Is it a fact that despite being present at the annual conference of Association of Asian Studies (AAS) held in 2011 at Hawaii, Doniger “declined an advanced written invitation from Dr. Madan Lal Goel of the University of West Florida to participate in a Roundtable Panel on her book, citing prior commitments and busy schedule.” Is it also a fact that when Delhi University Associate Professor and a scholar of Indian civilisation, Dr. Bharat Gupt had an opportunity to speak with Doniger during a reception hosted by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). She again declined his invitation to attend the Panel, with the comment “I have moved beyond The Hindus.”[12] If Doniger and her ilk refuse to engage in debate with some, among the “others” who have genuinely asked for a dialogue, isn’t it a problem with her and her intellectual progeny – a problem which is perhaps the manifestation of a deep rooted uncertainty with one’s own scholarship and one’s ability to defend one’s intellectual positions and interpretations?

Past Indian Masters show the way

How many, for example, among those who have found the book withdrawal  an atrocious way to handle the matter have heard or even read the masterly rejoinder, “Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited” given by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vajraparana to Jeffrey Kripal’s  Kali’s Child? It is because the other master exposé of Doniger’s scholarship, “Invading the Sacred” gave space to this work in its discussion that its contribution remains recorded. The attitude has always been to see the Indian scholar as the “native” devoid of skillful scholarship and capacities for interpretation and fit to remain a silent consenting conveyor of the “outsiders” positions on India. Those who accept this role of conveyorship are the ones who are feted and felicitated!

The other reality that is ignored by this type is the fact that most of our opinion leaders in the past, leaders in the realm of thought, doughtily joined issues with all negative portrayals of India. Swami Vivekananda constantly debated and argued in order to expose the missionary reading and position on India. It is a wide and fascinating study to see how Vivekananda, ceaselessly exposed the missionaries, their designs and their falsehoods when it came to interpreting Indian traditions and systems. The Swami did not desist from publicly taking them on and from ridiculing them for their ignorance wherever required. Yet even then, because he attacked and exposed the missionary depiction of India, Vivekananda was castigated as being anti-Christian. His accusers at home and abroad refused to accept that a native monk could talk and make theological points on the same level and often at a level higher than the Westerner. It is interesting to note Vivekananda’s own words:

It is not true that I am against any religion. It is equally untrue that I am hostile to the Christian missionaries in India. But I protest against certain of their methods of raising money in America. What is meant by those pictures in the school – books for children where the Hindu mother is painted as throwing her children to the crocodiles in the Ganga? The mother is black, but the baby is painted white, to arouse more sympathy and get more money. What is meant by those pictures which paint a man burning his wife at a stake with his own hands, so that she may become a ghost and torment the husband’s enemy? What is meant by the pictures of huge cars crushing over human beings? The other day a book was published for children in this country, where one of these gentlemen tells a narrative of his visit to Calcutta. He says he saw a car running over fanatics in the streets of Calcutta. I have heard one of these gentlemen preach in Memphis that in every village of India there is a pond full of the bones of little babies. What have the Hindus done to these disciples of Christ that every Christian child is taught to call the Hindus “vile”, and “wretches”, and the most horrible devils on earth? Part of the Sunday School education for children here consists in teaching them to hate everybody who is not a Christian, and the Hindus especially, so that, from their very childhood they may subscribe their pennies to the missions. If not for truth’s sake, for the sake of the morality of their own children, the Christian missionaries ought not to allow such things going on…[13]

Sri Aurobindo, taking on that half-baked critic of Indian culture William Archer (1856-1924) who had depicted and interpreted Hindus and Hinduism in much the same manner as Doniger and her academic progenies have done today, wrote an entire defence of Indian culture in which he severely attacked Archer’s depiction. Terming Archer’s book on India as “journalistic pugilism’ Sri Aurobindo pointed out that what Archer had done was to:

…collect together in his mind all the unfavourable comments he had read about India, eke them out with casual impressions of his own and advance this unwholesome and unsubstantial compound as his original production, although his one genuine and native contribution is the cheery cocksureness of his secondhand opinions. The book is a journalistic fake, not an honest critical production.”[14]

Such has always been the broad contours of motivated Western scholarship on India and the designs and methods of their spokespersons here. Our nationalist stalwarts, seeing through such works, did not back-out from an aggressive engagement with the critics of Hinduism. Amidst their pressing and manifold activities and struggles they rarely failed to rise up to defend Hinduism in a vigorously aggressive manner, especially against irrational and motivated Western scholarship.

It is true, as some have averred on behalf of Doniger, that there is a struggle ahead. But this struggle is of the Hindus speaking up for themselves and not the other way. This is the actual struggle because the odds arrayed against such a speaking-up are formidable. The method therefore must be a different one, not one based simply on an attitude of passive defence but sustaining itself on a more active approach, as Sri Aurobindo once put it “defence by itself in the modern struggle can only end in defeat, and, if battle there must be, the only sound strategy is a vigorous aggression based on a strong, living and mobile defence; for by that aggressive force alone can the defence itself be effective.”[15]

It such a defence that needs to be evolved and created – that is the real challenge and yet perhaps in that alone lies the only way to triumph.


[1] D.K.Chakrabarti, Colonial Indology: Sociopolitics of the Ancient Indian Past, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997, p.2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pp.2-3.

[4] Cited in Colonial Indology, p.4.

[5] Rajiv Malhotra, Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity, New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2014, p.267.

[6] Ibid., p.267.

[7] Ibid., p.263.

[8] H.M.Elliot, (John Dowson ed.), History of India as told by Its Own Historians (The Muhammadan Period), vol.1, London: Trubner & Co., 1867, pp.xxi-xxii also cited in Ram Swarup, “Historians versus History” in Sita Ram Goel, ed., Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them?, New Delhi: Voice of India, 1st rpt., 2009, pp.282-283.

[9] Ram Swarup, op.cit., p.283.

[10] Elliot, op.cit., p.xxii.

[11] Ram Swarup, op.cit., p.283.

[12] Note by Professor Bharat Gupt, “Questioning Wendy Doniger on Hinduism in Hawaii at Annual Conference of Association of Asian Studies (AAS), March 31-April 3, 2011.”

[13] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol.4, Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, (Mayavati Memorial Edition), pp.344-345.

[14] Sri Aurobindo, The Renaissance in India & Other Essays on Indian Culture, Puducherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1997, p.99.

[15] Ibid., p.62.