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The man fighting for Americans to learn the truth about Hinduism

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: April 22, 2015 10:59 IST
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'In the last 10, 20 years American academia has used the concerns about Hindutva in India to almost completely trash the concept of Hinduism.'

'In the American debate, Wendy Doniger's point of views perpetuated Hinduphobia.'

'Americans were willing to change... Indian intellectuals let us down badly.'

Image: A sadhu offers prayers after taking a dip at the confluence of the Ganga and the Bay of Bengal. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Vamsee Juluri is exasperated with the increasing Hinduphobia of some Western intellectuals.

In Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence, he offers the alternative narrative. He claims his new book is the answer to Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History.

He says he wants to bring about a change in the "Hinduphobic global mood".

Juluri, image, below, teaches at the University of San Francisco and has research interests in Indian television and cinema, mythology, religion, violence and Gandhian philosophy. He is the author of four books, including Bollywood Nation: India through its Cinema.

He spoke to Sheela Bhatt/ recently.The first of a two-part interview:

It seems that through your book you are trying to make an intervention in the ongoing debate in America and on the international stage, even in India, on the issue of Hinduism. Am I correct?

I want to argue that Hinduism has been tremendously misrepresented in the American academic discourse, American media and popular culture. The reason why it has become a great worry is that almost every colonised culture or community has been misrepresented in global/Western academia and media because we were colonised for several hundred years. So we are all still emerging.

Africans, Indians, South Americans, we are all emerging from a period of great ignorance.

In academia, till the 1960s or so, most of the paradigms were extremely Eurocentric. So social science, history, all the subjects were taught largely from the Eurocentric point of view.

It started to change in the '60s and '70s. There was a great deal of decolonisation in the academia and a lot of formerly silenced groups found their voices and places there.

But what happened at that time was that for some reason the study of Hinduism and the general narrative about Hindus and Hinduism never got decolonised. It was because of some complicated racism problems in America.

To some extent it was because the nascent Indian intellectual culture was diverted and driven by a strong secular ethos instead of respecting and recognising Hindu philosophy. So I think it played both ways. Most of the Indian intellectuals, who went abroad and were writing, pretty much did not recognise its social and cultural value in its raw form.

Is there any particular debate that led to this trajectory of thought?

As a result of Hinduism's representation not being decolonised in the academia, in the last 10, 20 years American academia has used the concerns about Hindutva in India to almost completely trash the concept of Hinduism.

So in the last 20 years what has happened is that the entire narrative on India and Hinduism has been dominated by a small group of writers who, in the name of writing on Hindutva, have perpetuated the old Orientalist myths about Hinduism.

I call it Hinduphobia.

I am not saying it is a personal bias. It is a systematic bias in the media discourse. So you see it in the pop culture, films like Slumdog Millionaire, in news reports and articles and in Wendy Doniger's book. The first half of my book is actually a response to her.

Her claims are based on facts, on proper research. So how can you counter it like that? She mostly quotes Indian scriptures.

I differ in that reading and I'll tell you why. She might be quoting certain interpretations. If you look at her bibliography, she is quoting certain interpretations which are consistent from the academic tradition in which she has been trained. Right? So, in her own intellectual tradition, maybe it made sense. It is a toolbox being used to study dead cultures, essentially.

Now the problem is the broader narrative that she is arguing for has nothing to do with the realities of Hinduism, in terms of the Hindu outlook and beyond the world.

So in that article that you printed out, Hinduism and Cultural Wars, I made the academic argument there.

I was trained in the critical academic tradition. I have studied journalism at IIMC (the Indian Institute of Mass Communications) and did my master's and PhD from Amherst, which is a very Marxist place. And I appreciated the Marxist philosophy; I understood the world very well.

But the problem was that in the American debate, what happened was Wendy Doniger's point of views perpetuated Hinduphobia instead of really reviving the liberal, diverse, plural Hindu culture as she intends to or as she thinks she is doing.

I will give you an example. Now in the idea of alternative histories or subaltern histories, the idea that there is a dominant historiography, a dominant way of telling a story of a country, of a people, of a culture, which has oppressed other traditions. Now we are reviving it.

For example, in the Americas till the '70s children in schools, colleges, were taught that Columbus came and discovered America and natives were savages and Indians. Starting from the 1970s that was challenged. You had books like Howard Zinn's people's history, Lies My History Teacher told Me, so that has changed a lot of the discourse and a lot of schools and children have recognised voices in American history.

At least they recognise that the native American point of view is different, Eurocentrism is different and like that.

Now in India, Doniger and her supporters had presumed that there is a similar dominant history about India or in India that she is fighting valiantly, which she is not. I'll tell you why. The dominant history, the narrative structures that we learnt in our textbooks in India, were never really decolonised after Independence.

Microscopically there was some good research done here and there obviously. When you look at it in specific cases like (Indian historian) Romila Thapar, it is admirable. But when you look at the larger picture, it was a mess.

What I learnt in my textbook was very simply that Indian history begins with the Indus Valley which is not Hindu and then there was this Aryan invasion that brought Hinduism. And then there were Buddhists who civilised Hinduism, Mughals who civilised Hinduism, British who civilised Hinduism.

I am oversimplifying, but that is the narrative, the dominant narrative we learnt more or less in Indian history. That is the dominant narrative that American school children learn today about Hinduism. In fact, that is one of the incidents because of which I got involved with this topic.

In 2006, the Hindu community petitioned the board of education in California. They suddenly realised after 30 years, being good Indians and not complaining, they realised the trash that is being spoken about our histories in these textbooks.

Only one lesson in class sixth on ancient India basically says something about the Indus Valley, not about Hindus, something on Aryan invasion and the caste system.

That was all they learnt about Hinduism. And what the community discovered in 2006, was that all the other immigrant minority communities, the Jews, Muslims, discovered a rule that minority feelings should not be hurt.

In school, curriculum lessons should promote diversity and respect for diversity rather than racism. So school textbooks were changed for all the other communities.

The school textbooks talk about all the other religions being very peaceful, scientific and advanced, which is wonderful. Let school children learn good things about every religion. But when Hindus in America tried to change it, you had Professor Thapar and others saying that 'Oh, this is a Hindutva conspiracy.'

To this day textbooks have not changed. To this day children in America have to memorise the total nonsense which they know is wrong. Now the teachers are sympathetic, they are telling children that you teach the class or let the parents teach the class.

That was the breaking point for me. Until then I largely shared the concerns about extremism and militant forms of Hindutva. All of those things I shared. But then when you trash and attempt decolonisation, an attempt made by a community to fight American racism, it is a problem.

However, the Americans were willing. It is not that they want to be racist, they were willing to change. It is our Indian intellectuals who let us down badly.

So to come back to the point of intervention, Wendy Doniger's book claims to be reviving the lost voices of subalterns and animals and women. But it is reproducing the same structure. It doesn't really challenge the Aryan invasion theory.

On the contrary Wendy Doniger makes outrageous claims. Pages 144, she says the Aryan invasion of India or the Vedic Aryans, early Hindus coming into India, was similar to Nazis invading Austria. How bizarre is that!

This is old colonial Max Mueller kind of fantasies taken and turned into Hinduphobia.

Then she also makes outrageous claims about violence. Obviously there was violence, but as I understand Hindu philosophy largely through popular culture and practice, and also because of Gandhi. I teach Gandhi quite a bit, who was very concerned with Ahimsa.

I am not saying we are perfect human beings, but we have been concerned philosophically with Ahimsa. Doniger makes outrageous claims. She says Hindus have violent gods because the monsoon is violent. We don't think of the monsoon as violent, we think of it as life-giving.

So there are a lot of these absurd claims in her book and it reproduces the old Hinduphobic dominant colonial narrative and that is why I intervened.

To some extent, I think India's self-perception also needs to decolonise itself.

The last 20 years we have been so inundated by the global media. To a very large extent our story about ourselves today, is coming from New York, London, and to a certain extent New Delhi.

As much as I enjoy coming to New Delhi, you know we are closely connected to global networks, media and intellects. So I feel the real problem of India today is that our popular narrative about ourselves in the media -- again, for good reasons we should be concerned about the minorities, we should be concerned about intolerance -- has lost sight of some ground realities in India.

Can you apply the same discourse about minorities in America like, say, blacks and whites, to Muslims in India? That is what the Western narrative has been doing again and again. There needs to be a more nuanced understanding of identity, power and responsibility in India.

Don't miss the concluding part of this interview: 'Hinduism has been failed by seculars and the right-wing'


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Sheela Bhatt / in New Delhi