Indology Debate: Insider Vs. Outsider

Statue carved on the wall of a temple, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India

By Nithin Sridhar

Indology, especially, Hinduism studies has come under a lot of criticism in the recent past- be it the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ by the publisher, after the book was widely criticized for its inaccuracies, bias, and sexual connotations, and a court case was filed; or the sharp critique of Sheldon Pollock’s work on Sanskrit by Indian American author Rajiv Malhotra in his recent book ‘The Battle for Sanskrit’.

These western Indologists have been criticized for showing utter disregard for how Hindu practitioners themselves perceive their religion and traditions, and for superimposing their own biasness and worldviews on Hindu practices in the pretext of presenting an objective view. Sheldon Pollock, for example, and scholars subscribing to his school of thought, try to portray Sanskrit language and literature as being political and oppressive, as against the insider’s perception of Sanskrit being a ‘Divine language’, that caters to both mundane and transcendent.

This attempt by the ‘Outsiders’ to hijack the narrative about India and Hinduism from its indigenous practitioners and then project their own biasness and superimpositions as ‘Objective’ and ‘Authentic’ interpretation of Hinduism is at the heart of the debate raised by Rajiv Malhotra in his book. This insider vs. outsider, technically referred as ‘emic’ vs. ‘etic’, debate is not a new development. This could be traced back to at least the second half of the 18th century, when the British Orientalism started. This is not to say that there was no outsider’s account of Indian society before that period. We have extensive accounts left by the Greeks, Chinese, Muslim, and Portuguese travelers and chroniclers. But, it is only after the arrival of the British, do we encounter a serious and systematic examination of Indian traditions and practices by those who were outside the tradition.

These attempts of the outsiders (mostly perspectives rooted in Abrahamic worldviews and/or Western philosophical worldviews) to hijack Hindu religion and practices, appropriate and digest elements perceived as useful, and demonize elements, which does not fit their worldviews, and finally regurgitate back the digested, secularized, and demonized version of Hinduism as the ‘authentic’ and ‘objective’ Hinduism, have pretty much become mainstream today. And academia and media, both in India and the West, more or less accept this regurgitated Hinduism as the mainstream narrative on Hinduism. As a result, the outsider’s view on Hinduism has gained legitimacy, whereas the insider’s view has been sidelined, and painted as being backward, superstitious, and irrelevant.

To understand this global Kurukshetra in the academic field of Indology, it is imperative, that one recognizes the fact that ‘Outsider’ is not a homogenous entity or school of thought. One can easily classify ‘Outsiders’ into various categories based on their location, time-period, methodology adopted, etc. Secondly, the terms ‘Insiders’ and ‘Outsiders’ is not a geographical reference as such. It is a reference to the worldview a commentator on Hinduism adheres to. Anyone who is trying to present the Dharmic perspective is an insider, and anyone who is using Abrahamic or Secular worldviews is an outsider.

Let us now look briefly into various categories within the Etic tradition of Indology:

European Orientalism/Colonial Indology

Indology as a systematic study of Indian history, culture, and languages, with special focus on Sanskrit and Hinduism, started with the arrival of the Europeans, especially the British. This European Orientalism has been described as a beginning of “European enterprise with Indians as objects of Knowledge” (Gyan Prakash, 1990). In other words, its primary purpose was to assist the British to further strengthen their control over India by creating narratives of Indian history and culture that would justify European colonialism. These colonial narratives also served the cause of Christian missionaries, who used these narratives to harvest the souls.

In fact, European Orientalism could be broadly divided into two categories: Early Orientalists and Anglicists. The former, like William Jones and James Prinsep, who were influenced by rationalism of the 18th century are often considered as being more sympathetic to Indians than the latter, like Charles Grant, Thomas Babington, Macaulay and James Mill, who were influenced by evangelism and who considered India was ripe for spreading Christianity. In any case, the agenda of European Orientalism, which was dominated by German Indologists, was to justify the British colonialism, establish the superiority of the Europeans, and dismantle the Indian and Hindu society, so as to open it up for Christian soul harvesting.

Charles Grant, for example, perceived Indian society as barbarian and considered English education as the only way to plant Christianity in India. Similar views were held by Macaulay and Max Muller. The complete dismantling of the indigenous education system and their replacement by English education; the creation of the narrative of ‘Caste’, which was extracted from the European racial division of ‘Casta’ and then superimposed on the Indian society by misrepresenting scriptural Varna and the indigenous groupings of Jati and Kula and amalgamating all of them under a single racial ‘Caste system’; and the creation of the ‘Aryan invasion’ myth, which continues to divide Indian society even today, are the few examples of Colonial narratives that were created to further the cause of British colonialism.

Apart from these Academic orientalists, there were Christian missionaries, who created books and pamphlets demonizing Hinduism and Hindu practices, and used various academic productions to further their proselytization.

American Orientalism

Just as Europeans created colonial Indology to serve as aid to further their hold on India and in the words of Macaulay. “to create a class of people, who were Indians in blood and color, but, European in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,” in the last few decades there has been newer attempts to hijack Indology and Hinduism studies from their Indian contexts, and secularize Hindu literature and practices by uprooting them from their sacred traditions. But, this time, it is the American academics, whom Rajiv Malhotra has rightly called as ‘American Orientalists’, who are calling the cards and driving the secularization project.

On the one hand, American academics like Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright, Jeffrey Kripal, and Sarah Caldwell have created a new genre of scholarship wherein they use Freudian Psychoanalysis and project a sexual meaning and interpretation of Hindu Gods and symbols. Paul Courtright, for example, has described Lord Ganesha’s trunk as a limp phallus and Lord Shiva as a notorious womanizer. Similarly, Sarah Caldwell has described Goddess Kali as a ‘mother with a penis’, and Jeffrey Kripal has written a book describing Ramakrishna as being a homosexual and a pedophile.

On the other hand, American academics like Sheldon Pollock have portrayed Sanskrit as a political, oppressive, and a dead language. They have further attempted to secularize Sanskrit language and literature, by uprooting them from their Adhyatmika (spiritual) and Paramarthika (transcendental) foundations. They also contend that Hindu literature, especially Kavyas including the Ramayana, have been used as tools for imposing political hegemony and are inherently oppressive and discriminatory towards women and Dalits. Then, there are other Western Academics like Michael Witzel, who still propound the Aryan migration theories into India.

Indian Leftist narrative

Since India’s Independence in 1947, Indian Academia, especially in humanities department, has been slowly taken by the Marxist/Leftist historians and scholars. Indian textbooks, for example, still teach Aryan invasion/migration theories as the absolute truths, though a large number of counter evidences have been discovered in the last few decades. These Left-leaning scholars like Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra, AK Ramanujan, etc. whose narrative had aped Colonial Indology before, now imitate the narratives created by American Orientalism.

The Western narrative about Indian history, culture, and religion has become mainstream in Western and Indian Academia. Even those, who are otherwise neutral in their political outlook, tend to adhere to Western narratives regarding Hinduism, or at least use the western ‘rational’ lens to analyze Hindu culture and society. Hinduism is often abused as anti-women, and anti-Dalit, and Hindu practices are often branded as superstitions, without caring to examine the Dharmic traditions on the basis of Dharma. The narrative of Aryan vs. Dravidian, Brahmin vs. Dalit, Sanskrit as a dead language, there was no Hinduism before the British, etc. are continuously propagated in the Indian Academia.

Need for Swadeshi Indology

In one of his lectures, Rajiv Malhotra speaks about the need for creating, what he terms ‘Swadeshi Indology’ i.e. the study of India, its religions, culture, and philosophies, in short the whole Sanatana Dharma on its own terms, using its own worldviews.

It is not that there has never been any counter to the misrepresentations presented by the orientalists. Many people like Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, etc. had effectively countered the Colonial narratives on Hinduism. In recent times, many people like Ram Swarup, Sita Ram Goel, Subhask Kak, Rajiv Malhotra, David Frawley, Nicholas Kazanas, etc. have countered the mainstream misrepresentations of India and Hinduism. Some people have used the western narratives and logic itself to refute the assertions the American Orientalists, and some others have tried to bring forward the Indian worldviews.

But, many of these attempts at creating a Swadeshi Indology have been scattered, and from people who are mostly outside the Academia, with an exception of few like Professor S. N. Balagangadhara. More importantly, the Hindu tradition itself has failed to create a critique of the Orientalism, both European and American. This was partly because, the British dismantled the Hindu traditional centers of education and partly because Indological narratives are produced in English language, using academic jargons developed in the West. The traditional scholars, who have extensive knowledge in Indian knowledge systems- be it Tarka, Visheshika, Mimamsa, Vedanta, Dharmashastra, Yoga, or Tantra, they are all trained in Sanskrit language and Dharmic technical jargons. Therefore, owing to their lack of knowledge of English, and their lack of training in Western Academic methodologies, the traditional scholars are unable to express the Indic worldview in the language of Western academia and critique the Western narratives of Hinduism.

Therefore, it is the need of the hour to rejuvenate the Indian traditional centers of learning (i.e. pathashalas), and then mainstream them by including them in the Indian Academia. Also, a mechanism to train few interested traditional scholars in the methodologies of the Western academics must be created. More importantly, traditional scholars and scholars trained in Western methodologies must be brought together to collaborate and create Swadeshi Narratives of India and Hinduism, so that the Emic/Insider view on Hindu traditions and practices can stand on an equal footing as Etic/Outsider narrative in the global stage.

  • Megh

    Thank you Nithin Sridhar, for this articulate piece; very helpful as a quick primer.