About five years ago a New Jersey entrepreneur called Rajiv Malhotra wrote a column on Sulekha titled “RISA Lila 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome”—a provocative critique of prominent academics in Hinduism studies in the US. This sparked off a rather unique debate that spanned tens of articles and thousands of comments on Sulekha over the last many years. Many people found each other through this debate forming a very loose community interested in this topic. A new book “Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America” published by Rupa & Co chronicles this debate and raises serious questions about the state of Hinduism scholarship in the United States.
This publication of this book is a marker of change that has historical dimensions. Though this story has plenty of colorful characters from Rajiv Malhotra, the feisty entrepreneur who started Infinity Foundation, Balagangadhara (or Balu as he is called) the radical scholar and director of research group in Belgium that is developing a science of cultures, Wendy Doniger the reigning doyen of Hinduism studies occupying a prominent chair at the University of Chicago, Jeffrey Kripal, who traces a remote Indian ancestry and who wrote the book “Kali’s child” about Ramakrishna Paramahansa while allegedly struggling with his feelings and homosexuality and so on and so forth, that turn this academic quality book of scholarship into a must-read page turning thriller. Yet as in any historic story the characters and events are the nimitta, the vessels afloat on the ocean that allow us to see the movements of the enormous waves of change before they come crashing onto the shore. Let us gaze then at the waves themselves.
In Jawaharlal Nehru’s now-famous speech at India’s independence he said “a moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Whether 1947 was the time and Nehru and his colleagues were the people able to express the “soul of the nation” is a different debate. It is not enough for a nation to simply be free of foreign rule if we are still in thrall of foreign modes of looking at the world and at ourselves. In his prescient book “Hind Swaraj”, published in 1908, Gandhi had suggested that his Indian interlocutor wanted “English rule without the Englishman.” This remark remained true of India’s first post-independent generations and, in many ways, remains true of India today. This is why this new book has special significance.
The first wave that Invading theSacred marks is the rising economic affluence of Indians and ofIndia. It is hard to do the kind of critique that the book has done if one is beholden to the Western academic establishment for one’s paycheck and career. While the story of India’s economic rise and impending development has already become over-told it is worth remembering that India is not developing, but re-developing. There is no economic “miracle.” In thousands of years of its history, the last 200 years is perhaps the only time that India was less affluent than Europe. As a civilization India hardly ever made a virtue of poverty. When we were producing ideas and practices of global impact—in the sciences, mathematics, astronomy and human existence, we were not a civilization struggling for survival amidst wrenching poverty—we had plenty of economic surplus so that matters beyond basic survival could be investigated. That time is again nigh and the Indian voices in this book exemplify that– and we need to go back to finding our own place, our own original thinking, on the world table. Even the last two hundred years or so, if you look at Indian thinkers that have had a global impact or following, it is inevitably those that have drawn deeply on their own civilizational wisdom—people such as Gandhi or Aurobindo, Raman Maharishi or, more recently, BKS Iyengar. All the other chattering voices, other than a few scientists of renown, have invariably had a parochial following and limited impact on the world stage. But we need to move from the rare bright light to a generation of scholars and thinkers able to move the world, as we have in the past. The time for that is now and economic affluence is an important condition for that to occur on a larger scale.
The second wave is the dynamics of the internet. About ten years ago I had likened the internet revolution to the invention of the printing press in the following way. Just as the printing press allowed for the idea that “the masses could read”—education in Europe prior to this had been largely confined to the aristocrats—the internet allows for the idea that “the masses can write.” It would be difficult to mount the kind of challenge the Sulekha columns, and now this book, have done for the establishment before the internet. The internet truly allows for the marketplace of ideas. Non-mainstream ideas can challenge established thinking and it is more difficult for the chowkidars of the establishment to keep challenging ideas at bay. The book is thus a true Sulekha success story where people and articles organically gathered around a compelling set of ideas such that their cumulative force could not be ignored. Microsoft felt compelled to change Encarta; the Washington Post, the New York Times and the University of Chicago magazine covered the story and Rupa and Co has finally comes out with a book, five years in the making, that includes many of the original articles and even blog comments from Sulekha plus a significant amount of new work done by the editors—Krishna Ramaswamy, Antonio Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee. Where the print publications were tightly controlled and the internet bloggers could be mere snipers and commentators of what goes on in print, the book completes that circle where the compelling blog gets republished, in toto, by a mainstream publishing house.
Finally, the internet can truly be regarded as a Hindu medium. This is only half in jest—the Indian traditions share many similarities with the internet. Whereas the large publishing houses represent centralized control the internet decentralizes power. There is no church. The Indian traditions have always allowed for this marketplace of ideas with no threat of heresy. There is no central authority to stamp ideas with official sanction or suppress others with the pain of death and torment. New teachers and teachings could thus always arise, and thrive, without persecution, mixing and commingling with the old. Invading the Sacred is in anthology of articles and voices of many individuals with their own points of view and style—who were not commissioned by any one organization or told to write what they did. Nor does the “defense” of Hinduism require a counter-church or centralized organization. The ideas, one seeded, were followed through by different individuals, on their own time and self-leadership just as TCP/IP packets get routed in different ways from origin to destination.
So for anyone who reads this book, or despairs about the current state of affairs of Hinduism or Hinduism studies or expects others to do something about it—the answer is simple. It is to ask “What can I do” because all change has happened as a result of individuals asking that question. The story and contents of Invading the Sacred can provide inspiration—as a reminder of how what you do can travel from Sulekha to Rupa and beyond, and become another part of this wave.
Invading the Sacred. Krishnan Ramaswamy; Antonio de Nicolas; Aditi Banerjee ed. 2007. Rupa and Co., Delhi.
To order or learn more about the book go to
Additional reading (including some Sulekha articles that find their way into the book)
RISA Lila – 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome, Rajiv Malhotra.
RISA Lila – 2 – Limp Scholarship and Demonology, Rajiv Malhotra
Are Hinduism Studies Prejudiced? A look at Microsoft Encarta, Sankrant Sanu
India and Her Traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal, S.N. Balagangadhara
© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.