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The False Foundations of Western Indology

Imagine this: While traveling through a foreign land, you find an announcement of a public lecture about your country at your hotel. Being free that afternoon and feeling nostalgic for home, you and your spouse go to the lecture and discover that while the speaker knows the broad elements of the history of your country, his understanding is so shallow that it borders on nonsense.

What can you do? You can’t just say, “Excuse me, but you have it all wrong.” No, because you’re in a foreign country, and your spouse will never forgive you for creating a commotion. Not wanting to be rude or be accused of grandstanding for attention, you hold your tongue and walk out at the first opportunity. Later, you speak privately with the speaker and find it is not just him, he was taught wrong stuff at his college; it is pervasive.

This is the big scandal of Indology: Almost all you have in academic textbooks about ancient India is either superficial, banal, half-truths or plain wrong. The understanding of earliest India offered by the Indology community is based on flimsy philosophical and methodological foundations and a deep misunderstanding of the texts.And this judgment applies not only to Western academic scholars but also to Indians, who have largely slavishly followed Western views.

Worse, it is a racist enterprise in which the stated objective is to teach Indians what their books mean. Its premise is that Indians are culturally backward, they never developed scientific or critical thinking, and they lack access to the “true” meaning of their texts. It is further implied that the original authors of the ur-texts, which over the millennia have expanded into voluminous tomes with what they say have internal contradictions, were outsiders like the Indologists themselves, and the current confusing state of the texts reflects cultural shortcomings of Indians as a consequence of the intermingling of the original Indo-Europeans with the lesser races of India!

Hold it, you say! Isn’t it stupid to believe this? India is one of the cradles of world science and of logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, aesthetics, moral and political discourse, not to mention stories and fables. Modern science itself has much that is based on Indian contributions and Indians are in the vanguard of contemporary science. The Indologists are generally ignorant about science so they respond by saying that these are contributions to Western enterprises and besides, they add, what they are pointing to are Indian cultural deficiencies (although they mean race but they are savvy enough to know that it is not politically correct to mention it).

You say that couldn’t be true, for Indians are amongst the most successful entrepreneurs in the West and the wealthiest ethnic group in the United States, where there is a level playing-field. They say, maybe “yes”, but it’s only because Indians are mimicking the Westerners. And then they change the subject and say that when it comes to the old texts, Indians carry so much of emotional baggage that only they (the Western Indologists) can interpret them correctly.

But how can people in the academy believe in such racist stuff? Why haven’t these folks been drummed out of their jobs for stupidity, if nothing else?

First hubris, then scandal: The answer is a complicated story. But first, the calling attention to this scandal is not a reaction of Indians to the painful memory of their colonized past. Scholars both in the West and India have for decades pointed to the hollowness of the assumptions of Indology and the absurdity of their conclusions.

Neither does the scandal have anything to do with the national origin of the professors or whether they belong to one tradition or the other. Many Westerners have done wonderful work on India and paralleling that many Indian “scholars” have done shoddy work. To get true insight in any field, one needs to approach it with humility and pure heart, and suspend the lens of one’s own tradition, whatever that might be. In the world of wisdom and insight, class, nationality or race do not matter: we are all equal.

In private conversations with academics who work on India, there is acknowledgement that there is a cabal that consists of racists, European supremacists, leftists and others who might be sincere but so marinated in an obviously wrong paradigm that they don’t even know they are wrong. And then, of course, there are the thick-headed ones who just don’t get it; one of those once wrote me an email saying that only “philologists have the authority to interpret ancient India.”

Unbiased editors, themselves academics, are aware that many Indology faculty are so fanatical and politicized so as to have lost contact with the truth. This explains how I came to be invited to write several dozen encyclopedia articles on ancient India: if you look, for example, at Stanley Wolpert’s authoritative Encyclopedia of India (2005), you will see I have the second-most number of contributions, 18, next only to Wolpert’s own 19.

To be fair, the Indologists made useful contributions in lexicography, manuscript preservation and collation in the 19th century. If one may use Bhartṛhari’s categories, it was good work at the vaikharī and the madhyamā levels but quite wrong at the paśyantī.

The Indologists missed the larger meaning that provides coherence to the Indian texts; this is why their mistakes have continued generation after generation. Sri Aurobindo was right to point out that the European interpretations of the Vedas are essentially worthless.

To make sure that there is no misunderstanding, what I mean by the enterprise of the Indologists are narratives on ancient India and to the extent they affect understanding of the later periods. I acknowledge the great contributions scholars from the West have made to the study of the classical period and what followed thereafter.

Academic Indology: Historically, the universities in Germany began the academic study of India and this serves as basis for western interpretations of ancient Indian history and traditions. In The Nay Science: A History of German Indology, Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee chart the history of the discipline to show its questionable philosophical assumptions, anti-semitic and anti-Brahmanic attitudes, and racial prejudice.

In an interview, Adluri calls the racism of Indology insidious. “The Indologists had for so long told themselves that Indians lacked access to the “true” meaning of their texts that they no longer considered it a prejudice but a methodological principle and a necessary one at that.” The Indologists declared that the texts were not to be read as Indians read them for they lacked scientific and critical thinking; they [Indologists] are the final judge of what India’s culture and civilization was and is and only they can change India by intervening in its history by teaching Indians to understand their past that will give them the agency to make change.

Hermann Oldenberg, a 19th century leader of academic Indology, said that Indians are under the tyranny of “the misshapen, wild, cruel, [and] lascivious Hindu Gods, at their head Shiva and Vishnu.” The Indologists saw themselves as revolutionaries who want to save the Hindus quite in the same spirit as the Christian missionaries and the Tablighi Jamaat want to save Hindus.

Indologists saw Indian art as grotesque. John Ruskin, the English art historian of the Victorian era decreed that Indian architecture was systemless for it sprang from an irrational religion. The attempt to fit Indian art to Western rationality sprang from the same impulse that led to iconoclasm in Christian Europe. But the 19th century belonged to the Age of Reason so they didn’t want to physically destroy the art, they wished to control thought about it so that the only natural place for it would be the museum.

Images mediate abstract thought as is clear from the wealth of stories and cosmologies connected with the images of, say, Viṣṇu or Śiva, Durgā or the Buddha in India, or Athena, Apollo, and Dionysius in ancient Europe. Behind each image lies an entire epistemology, a knowledge system regarding lived reality. Idol-breaking is a projection of power over thought.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos speaks of “epistemicide,” that is, the extermination of knowledge and ways of knowing, as a key component of the drive in Europe and later in the Arab/Turkic worlds to power and domination. Its operation varied from burning books to extermination of people. Catherine Nixey in her book The Darkening Age describes how most of the artwork and literature of European antiquity was destroyed by zealots. Faces, arms and genitalia of statues were mutilated, if not entirely broken. According to one estimate only about 10% of European literature survived. Similar destruction occurred in Arabia, Iraan, Central Asia, and India.

Enrique Dussel’s argument is that centuries of “I conquer, therefor I am” (ego conquiro) was accompanied by the genocide/epistemicide of the “I exterminate, therefore I am” (ego extermino). It is from there that Descartes’ slogan “I think, therefore I am” (ego cogito) emerged. It was not a call to free thought, for here “I” represented the European, and everything outside of Europe was deemed inferior. Ramón Grosfoguel argues that the Western university has continued this process of epistemicide in the social sciences.

The drive by the Indologists to define India on their terms is entirely consistent with the larger European project of epistemicide.

Academic control: Christopher Minkowski, at his Inaugural Lecture for Boden Professorship at Oxford University is very transparent about the need to control Sanskrit studies. Lamenting that the Indian claim to Sanskrit’s authority has not withered in spite of continual assault by the Indologists, he claims that “if they accepted that claim, it would put them into a rivalry with the language’s traditionally trained, hereditary “native” experts.”

Minkowski adds: “Modern scholars, then, sought a method for containing Sanskrit’s potential to activate its cultural politics, by subjecting the study of Sanskrit to scholarly protocols which were antithetical to the language’s genius and charisma. They opted for a decidedly unromantic array of curatorial and antiquarian forms of scholarship: philologizing, cataloguing, typologizing, organizing into chronologies, and so on; eminently useful practices, no doubt, but none of them glamorous.”

In other words, the protocols are to deny Indian scholars of Sanskrit a place at the academic table.

So here we have a situation of parallel worlds, for traditional Indian scholars reject literally all Western academic scholarship and as far as they are concerned this stuff doesn’t even exist.

Delusion and ātmavidyā: One reason that the Indologists are befuddled is because of incorrect assumptions about the nature of Indian society. In my view, India was not fundamentally different from the rest of the world, and jātis are very much like communities elsewhere in the world. The caste system as we see it was created by the British for the jātis “were not aware of the specific varṇa class they belonged to but were squeezed into the varṇa system by the British administrators.”

Likewise, the Brahmins were not unlike priestly communities world over and their class was not closed. We know from modern times that communities can just declare themselves to be Brahmins (like the Saurashtras) and the same process doubtlessly occurred in the past.

Even if one were to excuse their self-confessed bias, why did the Indologists turn out to be so totally wrong in their understanding of the texts? Many of them were competent and patient scholars who were trying their best to make sense of what they had in front of them.

The answer is that the Indian texts have traps for the uninitiated. If the process of understanding involves many steps in a ladder, there is much in the texts that will let you believe you have reached the top at whatever step, if that is where you want to be. Thus, there is room in the texts both for those who believe that the ritual is only outer, and others who believe it is symbolic.

When it comes to moral precepts, the dharmaśāstras present material that might be contradictory in details because different subsets of these precepts were embraced by different communities. It was a system perfected for diversity!

Most significantly, if ātmavidyā, the central science of the Vedas, cannot be described in the usual categories of language as Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad instructs us, then the description through different lenses (not just the six main darśanas but many more that can be imagined) will have elements that are in contradiction. It is indeed a case of the six blind men feeling an elephant and coming up with different descriptions. The contradictions are both at the philosophical and the ritual levels and part of the instruction is to reach these contradictions (as crises of faith) to prepare oneself for intuitive insight that takes one to a deeper understanding.

Indian texts require navigating through their own protocols. This is where the guru or the teacher comes in, and oral instruction is extolled. The Indologist reads this somewhere and gets lost and thinks this means that there is no written stuff anywhere! They don’t get that the context is everything and the declarations within the tradition are not to be taken literally.

I have been surprised how many Western acolytes interpret stories of a spiritual master’s presence at two places at the same time as the literal truth. Growing up in the company of sadhus and other spiritual people, one learnt to separate the word from the image.

The Indologists are using concepts from their society to look at India, concepts that are too limiting. They don’t get India for they misunderstand the foundations of its culture. This will explain the strange books and articles being churned out on how there was no writing in India no matter if Panini says he knew writing, how the Brahmins cunningly converted most of Asia to their ideology, and how through yoga, which in their view has nothing to do with Hinduism even though it is the heart of the Bhagavad Gita and one of the six darśanas, they are spreading their ideas around the world.

One might ask how did the Indologists prosper for this long? There was a convergence in the program of the Indian political left (to save India from the clutches of tradition) and that of the Indologists. Due to centralization of the academic system in India and its control by the left for decades, the alliance had patronage.

If Indian ideas are spreading, it is only because the Indian tradition speaks to the problem of consciousness, which is also the frontier of modern science; it is a problem that the Western traditions have largely ignored.

The Indian system does not depend on the machinations and cunning of any specific class of people. It offers a universal message open to all in which each person is equal for the same puruṣa (consciousness) resides within each, and it is more than high talk for it offers practices related to self-discovery. That is something that the Indologist does not appear to understand.


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