25 May 2016

What Critics of South Asian Studies Programs Can Learn From Christians

Of late I have been reading of efforts by certain Indian-Americans to change California's sixth grade curriculum with respect to it coverage of India and Hinduism. You can read of the outcome of the most recent round of controversy here. In short, the opponents of the current textbooks, some of whom are associated with the Hindutva movement in India, argue that the texts unfairly criticize India's culture by their inclusion of the word dalit and discussion of the caste system. "Fair and balanced" is their ostensible goal but others aren't as sanguine and suggest that whitewash is a better characterization.

Conservative culture-warrior Christians have likewise been concerned that mainstream American textbooks elide what they believe are the Christian foundation of American constitutional government and improperly weight the faults of the Founders. Thus, discontent with the education of America's children comes from both long-term residents and newcomers to the American cultural scene. Disestablishment of America's system of public education would go a long way toward satisfying all parties (with the exception, of course, of the politically entrenched educational-bureaucratic industry).

Of more even more interest, however, is this piece addressing professional and deeply personal attacks on American (and some Indian) academics. For example,
In February scholars in India initiated a petition calling for the removal of a major Sanskrit scholar, Columbia University’s Sheldon Pollock, from the general editorship of a Harvard University Press series of Indian classical texts on the grounds that his writings “misrepresent our cultural heritage” and that he had “shown disrespect for the unity and integrity of India” (this of a scholar who has received the Indian president’s award for Sanskrit, as well as the Padma Shri Award, one of the Indian government’s highest civilian honors).
And lest one think such attacks come only from people in India, Martha Nussbaum (whom I discuss at some length in my paper on human rights here) observes, “For about 20 years at least, members of the Hindu community in the U.S. have been carrying on a well-funded campaign to substitute an ideological Hindu-right version of Indian history for serious historical scholarship.”

What account for such contemporary antipathy toward scholarship? One of the objects of Hindutva-inspired attacks, Wendy Doniger, puts it this way: The misunderstanding arises in part from the fact that there is, in India, no real equivalent of the academic discipline of religious studies. With only a few recent exceptions, students in India can study religion as a Hindu or Muslim or Catholic in private theological schools of one sort or another, but not as an academic subject." In other words, the modern-day antagonists of the academic students of Hinduism reject out of hand the modern, Western, secular, naturalistic mode of "scientific" study of religion.

For over 200 years believing Christians have had a similar relationship with the academic approach to their faith. As even a casual observer of the publications of the Society of Biblical Literature would conclude, the work of many academic students of the Christian religion have no personal stake in the faith of that religion. But not all of them. In other words, many serious academics are themselves Christians.

In any event, Christians have learned a great deal about the original meaning of the Scriptural text and the history of their religion from those whose only interest in that text or that history is as a matter of archaeological, linguistic, literary, or historical study. Study of the phenomena of the bible or the church is not, as such, inconsistent with belief in the meaning of the Bible or the transcendent reality of the Church.

So too, I suspect, of the Hindutva. Exposure to the academic reconstruction of the history of the texts and practices of the religions(s) of India may be uncomfortable. Such reconstructions on occasion may even be incorrect. Yet in the long run retreat to commitment is not a program for success. Toleration of the valuable insights of those who do not share one's presuppositions can be helpful while erroneous academic speculation can be sloughed off. Attacks on the competence and libido of scholars of Hinduism should not be tolerated. Indeed, advocates of Hindutva might do well to consider pre-Hindutva Hinduism, which demonstrated far less defensiveness than its contemporary descendants.

No comments:

Post a Comment