Thursday, 21 April 2016

Wendy Doniger repressing Religious Studies

The following is my comment on an article by Wendy Doniger titled- The Repression of Religious Studies- in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
I need hardly mention that it was 'detected as spam'.

Are Religious Studies being repressed in India or America? The short answer is no. People of any Sect can, quite legally, attend a Seminary of their choice where only such instruction as they find palatable is offered. At the margin, there may be restrictions based on Homeland Security but, in the context of Prof. Doniger's article, no such consideration is germane.
What is germane is whether American Professors in what for most Americans is the arcane, if not wholly irrelevant, subject of Indology or Oriental Religion, are in possession of a minimum standard of knowledge and whether they are able to present a reasoned argument. This is important as a matter of quality control. If one Department- even one most people have no interest in- of a University begins filling up with stupid or ignorant people then there is a risk that theses incorporating foolish or ignorant premises will receive the imprimatur of other Departments and this may have adverse real world consequences. The Turkish Economist, Timur Kuran, had highlighted the danger of 'Availability Cascades', based on shoddy scholarship, distorting Public Policy in the context of Islam. His empirical work led him to the conclusion that 'drain theories' of Underdevelopment led to bad 'autarkic' Economic policies whereas what was actually needed was a change in Inheritance Law which in turn required stronger Institutions, property rights and contract enforcement.
In the case of India and Hinduism, an Academic Availability Cascade based on the notion that 'Aryan' invaders created a theocracy which imposed an exploitative patriarchal caste system, made it possible, indeed fashionable, for Professors to abandon any pretense of methodical scholarship or reasoned argument in order to pose as 'engaged' intellectuals subverting an antediluvian Fascism with surrealistic texts. No very great damage was done- America understood India's increasing importance and signaled that it would support whichever Party won the elections. Thus, when the Congress party returned to power, the U.S put a visa ban on Narendra Modi. When Modi became P.M, Obama welcomed him warmly. If anything, American Academia's determination to equate Hindutva with Islamic Terror was a boon to Modi's party because it won over to their side even the upwardly mobile technocratic diaspora which previously had identified with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and been suspicious of declasse vernacular politicians like Modi. It is true that the richest of the diaspora gain by pretending to be ultra-liberal opponents of the incumbent administration, but this is true of any 'one percent'.
Turning to what Prof Doniger has to say in this essay, I find myself struck by the following passage- '...there is no tradition of religious studies in Indian schools or universities. Like Europe when theology queened over the sciences, India had Sanskrit schools (called tolas (sic)) where Hindus studied both academic subjects and Hinduism, and Muslim schools (madrasas) that did this for Muslims, and, eventually, Catholic schools (where upper-class Hindus, as well as Christians, were educated). But public schools and universities in India never developed a tradition of teaching religion as an academic subject.'
I suppose an American might find little to cavil at in the above. Okay, she might say to herself, India was a place where you couldn't go to College to study theology and gain a qualification entitling one to become a priest. Perhaps, in India, Religion was simply too incohate to be studied as an academic subject. That's why Indians are protesting against American Professors who apply the techniques of the Academy to the analysis of Indian texts. No doubt, if the Indians ever found out that Biology Professors are engaged in a scientific study of how human beings evolved or that Astrophysics Professors study how the Universe came into being, they would be even more outraged.
By contrast, an Indian will find Prof. Doniger's pronunciamento bizarre in the extreme. India has always had centers of learning where students received a thorough indoctrination in the theology of their sect and how it differed from the doctrines of its rivals. This did not change after the British established their paramountcy. Every Educational Institution sponsored by them recruited Pundits and Moulvis who taught 'Religious Studies', published learned tomes and helped frame curriculuae and set exam papers. It is true that such Studies lost salience between 1857- when the 'Occidentalist' Calcutta University was set up and also around the time when Judges dispensed with the 'Court Pundit' relying instead on Case Law and learned arguments presented, more often than not, by Native barristers- and 1882, when the 'Orientalists' triumphed in determining the character of the newly created Punjab University. Ironically, it was the patriotic fervor characterizing the graduates of 'Occidentalist' Universities which won the argument for the 'Orientalists'. However, since the indigenous tradition of Religious Studies was so strong and efficiently administered, parents wanted even specifically Sectarian Schools and Colleges to concentrate on Technical subjects and the teaching of English and the prestigious register of the Vernacular language which was being adopted for official purposes.
This is not to say that scurrilous attacks on Indian Religion and Customary Morality were not published by journalists nor that Academics then never stooped to the same means to garner gelt or vent their spleen. However, with the dawn of dyarchy, there was sufficient push-back from the electorate to curb the worst of this type of nuisance. Indeed, in the Fifties, the prestige enjoyed by people like S.Radhakrishnan- Nehru's Ambassador to Stalin and later President of the Republic- or Chief Justice Gajendragadkar, who was from a traditional Mimamsaka family- meant that faculties of Philosophy, Literature and Political Science appeared, much to the chagrin of the rising generation, to be dominated by orthodox Pundits enforcing puritanical mores with the merest tincture of the spirit of independent inquiry.
The economic crises of the Sixties and Seventies persuaded many young people that only 'sampoorna kranti'- Total Revolution- could clear away the puritanical gerontocrats who had presided over the massacre of the life-chances of India's youth. Indira Gandhi reacted by suspending the Rule of Law and incarcerating her opponents. One section of the Left supported her and were rewarded with Academic appointments. It was, however, the Hindu 'Right' whose clothes Mrs Gandhi, under the guise of the Goddess Durga, ultimately stole. Her handsome son, Rajiv, initially won a huge popular mandate because his large liquid eyes and gentle manner chimed with popular representations of Lord Rama. Later on, his widow- Sonia Gandhi- won all hearts because she was self-evidently a virtuous 'pativrata' and ideal daughter-in-law. However, Rajiv Gandhi had opened a can of worms regarding a disputed structure in Ayodhya and was heinously assassinated before he could turn the issue to his party's advantage. Modi's party was able to make capital out of the Ayodhya issue and emerged in the Nineties as an alternative to Congress. The Communist Party could have moved into the vacuum, more especially because Industrialists thought it would copy the Chinese model, but its politburo wouldn't let Jyoti Basu take the Prime Ministership for some obscure ideological reason. During this interim, keeping Modi's party out of power was the sole synoecist focal point for all-India politics. Academics scenting an opportunity to pose as battlers of 'Fascism' or 'subverters' of Patriarchy were quick to fabricate an Academic Availability Cascade which appeared to promise tenure-track Research Programs to second rate students and was warmly welcomed for that reason. However, the rapid development of the internet means that the paranoid premises underlying such 'Research' are too easily discoverable to be absurd.
American Indology- being of no practical use to Americans and thus not subject to any sort of quality control- cheerfully abandoned any pretense of scholarship or rigor in thought because it no longer faced any rival as the Global Knowledge Hegemon. Whereas Saidian 'Orientalism' struck a chord with ordinary people from a strategically important part of the world, American Indology's project appeared, even to that Diaspora whom we would expect it to attract, to be a vulgar and tasteless Racism masquerading as Gesture Politics.
If there is a lesson here, it is that Repression or Promotion is irrelevant in determining whether a Subject can flourish within the Academy. What matters is competition. Availability Cascades which produce degenerate Research Programs won't disappear by themselves. It is only in rivalry and under contestation with a rival Hegemonic Episteme that it can re-establish its claim to represent scholarship as opposed to senescence.

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