Indian postcolonialists (who started with good intentions). are like outsourced coolies who sustain and enhance the theory and the politics of the Western Knowledge Factory. In other words, they are working for the cartel. Article #8 in the continuing dialogue.
For the on-going debate, please see the RHS bar under Also See
I had planned a second part to my earlier article (The Peer-Review Cartel) to explore the cartel issue in further depth. But given the misunderstandings reflected in Vijay’s response (Po-Mo, Neo-Lib…And Shoddiness) I shall restrict this piece (and its companion) to responding to it.
Vijay complained that “Rajiv jumps on another horse,” because I moved between discussing political issues of peer-review and issues of Western-centric cultural theory. However, these are indeed two distinct though interrelated criticisms that I make, one challenging the academic cartel’s discriminatory practices due to the power of certain vested interests and the other questioning the shortcomings of certain “theories.” Both phenomena reinforce each other. Theories sustain and privilege the established power structure. Conversely, the dynamics resulting from this asymmetrical structure tend to cultivate “theories” that justify and preserve the underlying power relationship. The cartel flies on both wings.
I clarify this dualist nature in The Peer-Review Cartel with the following statement:
“There are two levels of abuse: the general blindness of the episteme, as Foucault would put it, and the incestuous power relationships that prevent even people who know better from blowing a whistle. One is an intellectual problem of method and perspective, and the other is a “governance” issue within academics. Both are pernicious, but they are not the same. The former requires the guild to open itself up, while the latter requires dealing with in-house corruption.”
To correct the misperceptions apparent in Vijay’s article, I have structured my response into two separate articles: This article deals with issues of theory, and a separate one in parallel deals with issues of power imbalance and non-transparent academic governance. In this article, I will address Vijay’s misunderstandings by clarifying the following:
a) The theories I criticize are literary theories dealing with culture and are not scientific (as in the natural sciences). Vijay drags in science as a diversion from the discussion on cultural theories.
b) On science (even though it is off-topic), I have opposed the project of “Vedic Science” / “Hindu Science” very publicly, and this was after considerable debate before launching our own History of Indian Science and Technology project (i.e. the Needham project for India). Yet, Meera Nanda (whom Vijay quotes as his authority) has foisted false allegations on me. Furthermore, Nanda’s critique suffers from her ignorance about the academic discipline called “Science and Religion” that is prominent in Western universities. Just as I reject “Vedic Science,” I also consider notions like “Leftist Science” to be equally nonsensical. I shall point out that Nanda’s error is the result of a confusion between correlations and causation.
c) The theories I deal with in my critique of the cartel are not merely about postmodernism, but cover the entire tool-box of literary/critical theories that are the staple in liberal arts.
d) The scholars of Indian culture cannot claim to be using “empiricism,” if that term is to be judged according to the standard of science. It is just another example of liberal arts scholars wanting to associate with symbols (in this case from science) to upgrade their personal symbolic portfolios.
In essence, I will take the position that science is neither “Vedic”, nor “Western”, nor “Leftist,” nor to be mixed up with “cultural theory”. This will hopefully free us from this diversion to return to discuss the cartel’s cultural theories. Vijay misses the point of my use of Sokal’s Hoax. I explained in my prior article that using that example had nothing to do with one’s philosophical positions. I wrote: “This essay does not take any stand on either side of the universalism/relativism debate in philosophy [of science] that Sokal is involved in.” Therefore, Sokal’s loyalty to the left or to any epistemology is irrelevant to his demonstration that theories often blind the editors of prestigious journals in liberal arts. While Vijay may try to disown this example as not pertaining to his own ideology – sort of like saying, “this does not happen to us leftists because we run fool-proof journals” – it is illustrative of the academic system in liberal arts/social sciences at large.
Science is neither “Vedic,” nor “Western,” nor “Leftist”
I have rejected theories of “Hindu” or “Vedic” science. I have given one of the proponents of these theories my list of what he must produce in a concrete and verifiable manner in order to have any scientific case at all. He has yet to come back to me. But Meera Nanda gives them far too much credit for understanding the philosophy of science and postmodernism.
When The Infinity Foundation started the project to develop a twenty-volume set on Indian science modeled on Needham’s magnum opus, we took great care to exclude any scholar with the “Vedic Science” mindset. I raised the issue of “Vedic Science” with the team of scholars, just to make sure that we had common ground rules. We discussed that while Sanskrit was very important in many other contexts, in this particular project we would exclude any claim that was solely based on Sanskrit texts, because it would introduce controversies about dating the texts, determining the geographical origins of the texts, and about interpretation. We would rather focus on compiling the enormous academic-grade material that already exists based on empirical (physical) evidence. We decided to stick to concrete areas like textiles, steel, medicine, agriculture, shipping, water-harvesting, etc., for which the primary evidence is archeological and not classical texts.
I used the following example to drive the point home: If one day archeologists find an ancient spacecraft, then, for sure, it would be within the bounds of this project to inquire about the claims of space travel. Pending such a physical discovery, mere reference in a text about travel to other planets cannot be admitted as scientific evidence, because literature could also be metaphorical, fictional, poetic or otherwise imaginary.
We wanted the project’s output to be credible among scientists of the highest caliber. The project team agreed on the following position, which is excerpted from the project web site:
“Some writers have tended to exaggerate claims of Indian scientific accomplishments, by stretching statements written in classical texts. Based on such textual references, for which there is no physical evidence as of now, they have concluded that there was space travel in the Mahabharata, along with nukes, intergalactic missiles, and just about every modern hi-tech item. This has justifiably earned them the term “chauvinists,” and the entire activity of writing about Indian science has become discredited, thanks to them. IF considers it very important to distance itself from such discredited scholarship. This is why the series being described here is being built on solid academic scholarship only, and not on wild extrapolations. IF believes that researching unsubstantiated claims about old knowledge has its place, but that facts must be separated from unproven hypotheses. Therefore, IF’s project does not include Puranas as scientific sources. There is no reason to cloud the issue…”
Meera Nanda’s disingenuous juxtapositions:
Unfortunately, however, Meera Nanda disregarded the rules of evidence before drawing conclusions, and wrote [Postmodernism, Science and Religious Fundamentalism]:
“How do these postmodern arguments play in the construction of Hindu sciences?…First, the more sophisticated, Western educated ideologues among Hindu nationalists (notably, Subhash Kak, David Frawley, N.S. Raja Ram, K. Elst, Rajiv Malhotra and his circle of intellectuals associated with the Infinity Foundation), have begun to argue…that modern science, as we know it, is only one possible universal science, and that other sciences, based upon non-Western, non-materialist assumptions are not just possible, but are equally capable of being universalized.”
I posted the following response on-line where her article was published [15/11/2003]:
I was surprised to see my name in this article, especially amongst those classified as believing in Vedic Science. As a physicist by training, I am well aware that there is ONE universal set of scientific laws. I don’t believe in postmodernism or any form of cultural relativism when it is applied to the natural sciences. There is neither any Vedic Science nor any Hindu science, just as Newtonian Laws are not Christian, and nor are Einstein’s theories Jewish laws.
At the same time, I do believe that there have been considerable Indian contributions to science that have gone unacknowledged. Therefore, The Infinity Foundation has launched a 10-year project to publish a 20-volume series similar to the seminal work by Joseph Needham on China, except that our series will be on Indian science. What makes it Indian is not a unique epistemology but that it was Indians who did it. For details on this project and its current status, please visit: Indianscience.org
A policy that was explicit clarified right up-front was that Indian science for our project does not include claims based on textual reference that “might” be interpreted as science. The acid test is physical empirical evidence. For instance, the focus of the books so far has included: steel and metallurgy; ship-building; agriculture; medicine; water harvesting; textiles; civil engineering; etc. [nothing even remotely linked to “Vedic”.]
We have distanced ourselves from claims of space travel in Mahabharata, atomic weapons and other exotic and far fetched ideas that require extrapolating the Sanskrit texts with speculation. At the same time, we are not denouncing such claims that others make, the fact being that they cannot be proven or dis-proven as of now. So we simply exclude them, rather going out of our way to denounce them as many writers have made a career doing. We simply wish to focus on the monumental task based on physical-empirical evidence we have set out to do.
Therefore, it was disheartening that Meera Nanda, with no empirical evidence or homework, made outlandish claims about my position on these matters. It goes to show the sloppy and over-politicized state of Indian scholarship. It is the blind leading the blind, since the colonial masters seem to have built a whole generation of English language based babus and neo-brahmins, who can simply mug-up and copy the standard line, even without verifying the facts. They will, undoubtedly, be able to market their services and accents to call-centers profitably.
Finally, I have no relationship with Frawley, Elst and the whole “Hindutva scholar’s” lot, and nor do I share in Hindutva political ideology.
Hopefully, Nanda in future will bother to establish contact with third parties and ask them for their positions directly, along with backup data, rather than insinuating based on her own wild extrapolations or fourth-hand information to brand people simplistically. It is dangerous to place everyone in a few fixed boxes, and Nanda seems good at doing that. There is a whole cottage industry of brown sahibs good with the English language feeding whatever the dominant culture rewards them to dish out. Their criticism is so predictable and now overdone. It’s time for their sponsors to send them new scripts. Why don’t they want to have open dialogs with opponents, in forums where both sides get equal and fair time to respond? I would be happy to accept such an invitation. Why is Demonology the accepted methodology to avoid the real issues at hand?
For any further details on my work please contact directly at:Rajiv.firstname.lastname@example.org
Unfortunately, by blindly quoting Nanda, Vijay goes down the slippery slope right behind her. Furthermore, Nanda does not live up to Vijay’s view that leftists should be open to dialog with others, because she has not even acknowledged my public comment above. (In her defense, I did notice that she removed my name in subsequent writings from her list of scholars whom she accuses of just about everything political that comes to mind.)
Nanda must first ask me (in the same above-board spirit as I started this debate by sending Vijay my list of issues/questions) to explain my views on whatever topic she likes. It must be clear by now that I am hardly shy in expressing my opinions openly. Then she would have every right to criticize whatever I stand for. That’s the purva-paksha Indian tradition (which, by the way, is neither Vedic nor Hindu specific!), and differs radically from the tradition of opponent-is-evil demonology by the Indian Left. Clearly, she lacks a basic understanding of my views on these matters and merely imputes my positions based on hearsay and political fads. Meera Nanda has fallen into the trap of hit-and-run politicized scholarship.
Vijay’s remark about astrology in Indian colleges is a delayed echo of what I wrote years ago when the program was announced. I had felt strongly that this ill-advised program would discredit Indian science. I would have liked instead to see a program introducing research on mental health and meditation, yoga and health, and Ayurveda – each being actively researched at several mainstream institutions around the world for many years.
The Kira Group
Let me also give the other side of this epistemological debate, of which Vijay may not be aware. Bas van Frassen (a professor in the philosophy department at Princeton University) sees nature as text that is being read by scientists. There is therefore the potential for the application of some literary theory principles to his philosophy of science. He develops non-dualistic theories without acknowledging the Vedantic or Madhyamika Buddhist influences that are fundamental to some of his work. One of his major postulates is that the subject-object mutually sustain each other rather than having separate inherent existences. Despite being one of the most eminent philosophers of science in the world, he is discouraged from such lines of inquiry by his academic peers. So he has a parallel intellectual life, using a private non-academic group (called The Kira Group) along with some other well-known academicians. Some years back, The Infinity Foundation gave a research grant to their group enabling its pursuit of off-the-academic-record ideas on the philosophy of science. This resulted in the creation of several interesting papers/discussions that eventually fed back into academic discourse.
One of Kira’s other research leaders is Piet Hut, whose formal career is as the top astronomer at The Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton (the famous place where Einstein worked for twenty years). Some years back, Piet went public about his support for the notion of first-person empiricism. This is empiricism based on phenomena in the inner (adhyatmika) realm, as contrasted with third-person empiricism of observing external data that is the basis for modern (so-called “Western”) science. Every one of these scholars (at Kira) privately acknowledges their profound respect for and debt to Indic thought and practice in reaching these first-person theories. They also recognize and admit that it is politically safer to use Buddhist philosophy in public. This is because references to Hinduism evoke derision, thanks in large part to the Indian Left’s persistent negative campaign in both India and the West, though the epistemological basis of first-person empiricism is a shared concept among the Indian traditions.
But here is the interesting fact: Piet was attacked by the top brass at the world’s most prestigious theoretical research institute where he works. They officially terminated him from a tenured post, and he filed a lawsuit against them. The head of the institute was also the head of the World Bank (or maybe it was IMF) and not easily out-done politically. Piet’s alleged offense was that he was too much into “this Buddhist thing,” which other (more politically powerful) scientists could not accept even as a line of inquiry with an open mind. (It is an interesting conjecture that had he been using Judeo-Christian frames of reference instead of Indic, he might have been considered acceptable – see discussion on Templeton later.) Piet fought publicly and we supported him until the issue became an embarrassment for the institute. Eventually, they had to retreat and reinstate him in his tenured job. He is now being left alone to inquire what he pleases.
This episode relates both to the importance of allowing innovative new epistemologies to be investigated, and to the ground reality of “academic freedom.”
Bottom line: What Piet and his group are investigating shows legitimacy for Indic worldviews as topics of inquiry (that are today having to be bootlegged and renamed for political safety), but this profoundly threatens the Western epistemological framework. Hence, these scholars, despite holding some of the world’s most prestigious posts in academic research, were simply hounded by the system. (By the way, the Meera Nandas of India’s Left are largely non-entities in this league.)
The Templeton Foundation:
But now there is also a thriving field of Science and Religion in academic research – which Nanda is probably ignorant of, and hence reacts defensively to. The Templeton Foundation leads this field, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent already on major programs in at least twenty top universities, with several Nobel Laureates as their paid consultants, and many large five-star conferences each year. The world of scientists who philosophize (which most hard scientists refuse to do formally in their academic work) may be divided into those who are funded by Templeton and those who are not. My guess is that Nanda did not yet manage to get into the five-star circuit, so she is playing hardball.
The relationship between Templeton and Judeo-Christianity is a double-edged sword: (1) On the one hand, Templeton legitimizes Western thinkers who appropriate ideas from the Indic traditions into Judeo-Christian frameworks and discard the Indic sources. This boosts the cultural, intellectual and political capital of Judeo-Christianity. Furthermore, the removal of India as the source of such ideas makes it easier for South Asian Studies scholars (who are independent of Templeton) to reduce Indic traditions into the “caste, cows and curry” cultural theories. I find this problematic. (2) But on the other hand, Templeton’s clout (and lots of money) has already brought respectability to this discipline in the highest circles of Western academe. The upside is that Hindus-Buddhists may now re-enter this field, under the cover of Templeton, because the Indian Left cannot offset Templeton’s clout, and, in fact, might be in awe of its power and salivating for its carrots.
To illustrate #1 in the foregoing paragraph, I am trying to locate an old email exchange that I had with one of Templeton’s eminent board members, a physicist at Harvard, who commented in the board meeting that his fact-finding trip to India showed that Indian ideas of science were mainly about urine-therapy and astrology. (Note: This was his “empirical” data-gathering!) The few other Indians who were present pretended to look out the window like embarrassed sheep, or giggled along in tacit support in front of about 50 persons, including some billionaires, Nobel Laureates and other celebrities. But I spoke my mind out, and later followed up by an email sent to their board and to some other scholars.
In my response, I reminded the scholar that one of his fellow Templeton board members and fellow Harvard professors, Dr. Herb Benson, is widely known to have (i) appropriated the theories and practices that he learnt from Maharishi’s TM program, which he had researched in the TM movement back in the 1970s, (ii) repackaged TM to spin-off his own thriving research business based at Harvard, and (iii) claimed this as his “original” research that was now being promoted by Templeton, often relocated into Christian historical narrative. There was pin-drop silence. (My unpublished U-Turn Theory has around 50 similar case studies of Westerners’ unacknowledged debts to India.)
Meanwhile, the Indian Left is completely absent in using these Indian models (adopted by increasingly mainstream Western scientists of considerable renown) for participating in serious work that is redefining the contours of science and its interface with religious traditions. Instead, they remain stuck in the fossilized post-Enlightenment science/religion dichotomy based on Judeo-Christian epistemology. This emerging field is also different from the scientific relativism from the post-colonials that Meera Nanda is mixing it up with. In fact, for liberal arts theorists, science itself has become a mysterious religion, which they do not understand but pay obeisance to, just to derive legitimacy-by-association.
Correlation and causation:
The overall relationship between science and religion (regardless of which religion) is complex and multi-faceted. Are the similarities in assertions (between science and a religion) mere correlations or are they causal? Some religious statements might lead to (as a necessary condition) a scientifically verifiable fact, while other religious statements might simply not contradict a scientific theory – these are different types of science-religion links. Also, is it a weak link, i.e., a sort of hypothesis only, or a strong claim of being proven? Furthermore, there are thousands of distinct propositions in a given religion, and one must subject each individually to such rigor. So one cannot make sweeping generalizations about a given religion being scientific or not.
The questions in the philosophy of science are deep, universal and abiding, and pertain to the very nature of knowing. Unlike Nanda and many trendy Indian Leftists, I do not think the significant theoretical positions on these topics have anything to do with the latest Indian politics. But Nanda cannot help creating a mumbo-jumbo of the philosophy of science and political flavors-of-the-day by sprinkling every article of hers with the bashing of Hindutva (into which she lumps what she calls “neo-Hinduism”). Her arguments in the philosophy of science are derived from what might help or hinder her political career against Hindutva. This might impress the politburo (or other sponsors), but it de-legitimizes her in the eyes of serious scientists.
Many Indian Leftists are confused between correlations with causation. Suppose one has found that there was a high correlation between Nazis and eating bananas. This should not be confused to mean a causal link in either direction: Nazism does not lead to eating bananas, nor does eating bananas make one a Nazi. Now, suppose A and B are beliefs that are commonly found among Hindutva people. This does not imply a causal link, as A and B could be independent of one another. It might be that A and B are non-causally correlated, or that both are separately caused by C (e.g. wanting to get votes). So when you come across a Hindu who believes in A, s/he should not be assumed to also believe in B or in Hindutva.
Lack of this understanding leads many Indian Leftists to impute that a Hindu who wants to pursue the relationships between science and religion (A) must be a Hindutva proponent who also believes in B, etc. So the Indian Left has dumb-minions (described in the companion article) whose radars are scanning for any one of many patterns that correlate with Hindutva. Upon detecting one, they falsely assume causation: that all other beliefs that could tenuously be linked must also exist in that person, hence the person must be Hindutva, and hence the attack starts. In doing so, they have alienated themselves from many open-minded Hindus, and thereby pushed these moderate Hindus into the Hindutva camp.
Science is not a cultural theory
The philosophy of science is a vast field in and of itself and has nothing to do with wacky socio-political ideologies. While scientific theories require proof of causation, cultural theories are unable to meet this standard and are often based on correlates and political consensus. There are many layers of credibility that Vijay seems to not bear in mind:
1) Most scientists (i.e. scholars in the natural sciences) do not take philosophers seriously, while, in reverse, philosophers are in awe of scientists and like to see themselves as being in the same league as scientists.
2) Most philosophers do not take literary theories seriously, while, in reverse, literary theorists are in awe of philosophers, and fancy themselves as knowing philosophy, including philosophy of science.
3) At the lowest end of this scale of knowledge are political ideologues focusing on the advancement of political positions and not on the serious advancement of knowledge. Many Hindutva proponents and Indian Leftists can be placed in this category. It is not surprising then that neither Hindutva nor the Indian Left has made any serious contribution to the advancement of universal knowledge.
4) The average desi ends up getting positioned even lower, by gazing up in awe of idolized literary theorists and political activists.
This means that at the highest end of the legitimacy scale there is science, in the middle sits philosophy, and near the lowest end there is literary theorizing. The “liberal peace activist” sits at the bottom and must make the greatest noise to get heard. They are like the “extras” shouting in a movie. Each of these disciplines disowns and disrespects its neighbor who is lower on the credibility scale, except for the tight political axis between literary theorists and their support base of political activists.
My problem is with literary theorists and activists pretending to be philosophers, especially philosophers of science, when all they have is the ability to name-drop and compile bibliographies. When one adds politics as the overriding lens on top of all this, it turns into a lot of nonsense.
I do not accept literary theory as currently promulgated (especially with its political overloading) as a philosophy of natural science. My criticism of “theory” was about literary/critical theories. I wish to separate philosophy of science from philosophy of cultures.
Therefore, my stand on scientific laws is that they are universal and not culture-specific. On the other hand, my stand on existing trendy cultural theories is that they are certainly not universal, and may not in most cases be valid at all. To be scientific a theory must meet the rigorous tests of being universally applicable, experimentally verifiable, replicable, and so on. These two stands are not in mutual contradiction, as science and culture are orthogonal issues.
I am more than ready, if Vijay wants, to add the philosophy of science to our list of discussion themes. But it would deserve to be a separate theme, and should not be used as a diversion tactic the way Vijay brought it here.
Socio-political consequences of ‘Science and Religion’
Vijay promotes the scientific reconstruction of Islam:
“In the world of Islam, we have one contemporary figure, the Iranian intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush (written about by Nanda), who argues that Islam must be reinterpreted according to the protocols of modern science. He does not deny the transcendental divinity of the prophecy of Islam, but he does deny the human interpretation of it…”
It is amazing that the superimposing of science to re-imagine Islam is glorified by the Indian Left, whereas the superimposing of science to re-imagine Hinduism is being condemned as “chauvinism.” The following problems/contradictions in the advocacy of Soroush/Nanda/Vijay are noteworthy:
a) Islam is highly history-centric, and hence it is acknowledged by liberal Islamic scholars that it would be very problematic to bring into scientific frameworks the many geography-centric and history-centric necessary conditions to be a Muslim. Hinduism is less burdened with similar necessary conditions, and is easier remodeled in a scientific manner. There are many alternative sets of sufficient conditions to be a Hindu – a big difference from having necessary conditions, especially those which are history and geography centric. Are Soroush, Nanda and Vijay willing to take a public stand against the history and geographic centric mandates of Islam? Alternatively, are they willing to argue how the “protocols of science” may be honored while retaining mandates of history and geography centrism?
b) The grip of the orthodox clerics on the common Muslim has always been far more intense than the grip of orthodox Hindu clerics on ordinary Hindus, simply because of vastly different levels of institutional powers and canonical mandates between Islam and Hinduism. (This, in turn, may be due to history-centric necessary conditions coming under the control of Abrahamic institutions.)
c) Hinduism is multi-textual: One may pick and choose from the Vedas, and/or Upanishads, and/or Gita, and/or Puranas, and/or one of the many other traditions, including various 20th century new traditions such as Sri Aurobindo’s. Furthermore, Hindus may (and many do) practice unwritten/uncodified dharma – through a non-ritualistic life of karma-yoga or dance or bhajans, etc. So belief in texts is not a necessary condition as in the Abrahamic religions. (In the Indian Left’s understanding of Hinduism, there is a big confusion between necessary and sufficient conditions to be a Hindu. They mistake sufficient conditions to be necessary conditions, because the Marxist critique of religion was based on Christianity only.)
d) Hindu orthodoxy is blamed by the Indian Leftists for doing such remodeling, whereas in the case of Islam the rare scholar who wants to remodel it is glorified by the Indian Leftists even though he faces an uphill battle internally.
Why would one remodeling be worthy and the other be condemned so fiercely? It is amazing that little critical reflection has gone into such questions of asymmetrical positions of the Indian Left. Why would they not encourage both Hindus and Muslims to scientifically remodel (i) for the socio-economic benefit of their respective followers, and (ii) because scientific-minded beliefs are likely to find more common ground than history-centric ones? This could legitimize the very project that Nanda condemns, i.e., making Hinduism more scientific.
Vijay writes: “If Rajiv’s Liberation Hinduism is to adopt the same general method it would be of great value for India today: what we need is not to Hinduize science…” But Vijay fails to understand the research relationships between the two directions: testing religious assertions for potential scientific value, and making a scientific upgrade of a religion. There is a large commonality between these pursuits, and there are many physicists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, philosophers, religion scholars and psychologists who are pursuing the Consciousness Studies field in both directions. Several hundred of these academic scholars meet in Tucson every two years. (Nanda should go there and learn in political safely, especially about first-person empiricism, because these scholars are white non-Hindus, so her comrades will not make fun of her.)
Surely, if the Indian Left would love to see the philosophies of Islam and Hinduism become more scientific, they should go about encouraging the very same Hindutva scholars who are at the forefront of “Vedic” science – a sort of redeployment in a slightly different direction. If the average Hindus/Muslims were to become more scientifically minded, it would make them less dogmatic, more open to changing with new empirical evidence, and more appreciative of each other. Vijay has argued against himself, it appears.
Back to cultural “theories”
When Vijay writes, “There is no ‘western’ theory…,” it is obviously true of natural sciences, but false of culture. Vijay is juxtaposing contexts (which, ironically, he accuses me of doing) because I do not remember ever saying that there are separate Western scientific laws – that would be ridiculous. What is Western (in the Edward Said sense) is the theorizing that is in the domain of cultures.
Vijay writes: “All inquiry is provisional, it is not ‘value free,’ but it is not made-up or false. Our protocols of inquiry demand that we show verifiable evidence for our claims, that we produce a theory that is rational and defensible, and that we are open about our values so that someone with another set of values is able to see the contradictions in what we claim.” The “provisionality” of inquiry and the corruption of the “protocols of inquiry” are due in large part because (i) data-gathering is subjective and filtered by biases, (ii) the theories deployed in a given instance are ad hoc, and (iii) the theories merely represent a consensus of the power structure at the time. That is why the system for which Vijay is an apologist is like the Christian Church protecting its “theories” against Galileo and others.
Vijay writes: “The camp of South Asian Religious Studies (I expect Rajiv means people like Wendy Doniger of Chicago, Robert Goldman of Berkeley and John Hawley of Columbia, among others) is hardly well-known for its subscription to post-modern beliefs.” This statement is false (when you insert “literary theories” in place of “post-modern beliefs”) in the case of Doniger, who is big on her “tool-box” of theories, which her students must learn, not necessarily from her but as part of the requirements. In fact, Sarah Caldwell (Doniger’s student) once remarked that she regrets not having studied Sanskrit or Indian texts because she focused on studying “theories” – Caldwell is an authority on applying “theories” to analyze the Hindu Goddess. I don’t know enough about Goldman’s work at this point to be able to comment. Jack Hawley is a complex man, because what you see is not all there is. For instance, he gave a talk at Stanford whose title and abstract was all about “Krishna Bhakti,” but he spent most of his time profiling me personally as a “rich NRI” who is “meddling” by trying to “construct” a new kind of Hinduism. (Vijay should go back to Hawley and argue that “constructing” Hinduism in accordance with science would be a good thing, just as in the case of Islam!)
Furthermore, just because someone studies Hindu texts or rituals does not make their scholarship authentic. Christian missionaries came to study Hinduism, and ended up defining it in categories that still persist, and that have become adopted even by our swamis lately. Religion, per the Christian worldview, is what (a) a priest does (b) in a church, (c) using canons(d) to help others comply with God’s Law, (e) to be saved (f) from Eternal Damnation. I do not wish to get distracted here, but none of these six components is applicable to Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism. Not one of these six is a necessary condition to be a Hindu. Therefore, much of what is being studied is not true to the traditions, because of the 19th century loss of Indian categories. Certain non-translatable words contain the Indic worldviews (note the plurality), but these have been removed from the discourse and substituted with distorted translations – to be discussed at a later date under the separate theme of “categories.”
Cultural data-gathering is not scientific empiricism:
Vijay wrote: “In my experience, the field of inquiry on South Asia is divided more along the axes of empiricism-theory and classicism-historicity. All scholarship is both theoretical and empiricist, both built on data and driven by models (or theories)….” But Vijay must take the claim of “empirical” data in cultural studies with a grain of salt. Bertrand Russell in Western Civilization wrote: “The anthropologist selects and interprets facts according to the prevailing prejudices of his day.” And Russell explains how this impacts the native informant: “…the savage is an obliging fellow who does whatever is necessary for the anthropologist’s theories.”
As a concrete example, Uma Narayan did extensive research on the Western axis of empiricism-theory about dowry-murder. She concluded that data-gathering was driven by the definition and categories that already contained Western agendas. [Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism, By Uma Narayan, Routledge, NY, 1997, pp.86-114.]. I summarize her findings using her words, as follows:
a) Statistical data is agenda-driven: “The ways in which ‘issues’ emerge in various national contexts, and the contextual factors that shape the specific issues that are named and addressed, affect the information that is readily available for such connection-making and hence our abilities to make connections across these contexts….”
b) Different agendas drive the emphasis on studying wife-murders in USA and India: “There is a striking contrast between the lack of focus on fatal cases that enters into the construction of the category ‘domestic violence’ in the United States context, and the focus on deadly cases of domestic violence in the Indian context that has given visibility to the category ‘dowry-murder.’ I believe that this ‘asymmetry in focus’ contributes to the lack of perceived connection between dowry-murders and domestic violence in the minds of many Americans.”
c) While detailed statistics on wife-murders are gathered in India, by month, by state, and by other minute details, there is no data-gathering of this kind in USA:“I did not come across any book or article that centrally focused on U.S. womenmurdered as a result of domestic violence…I found no data about the number of women who are annually killed as a result of domestic violence [in USA]…None of several American feminist friends I called knew off-hand roughly how many women were killed by partners each year in the United States. Nor could they find this figure easily when they went through their collections of books and articles on the subject. We were all struck by the fact that it was quite difficult for anyone of us to find this particular piece of data, and also struck by the degree to which deaths resulting from domestic violence have not been much focused upon in U.S. literature on domestic violence.”
d) Agendas have shaped the way categories are formed: “We need to understand the ways in which feminist agendas are shaped…One ‘effect’ of these contextual differences is that there is a visible category of ‘dowry-murder’ that picks out a lethal form of domestic violence in the Indian context, while there is no similar, readily available category that specifically picks out lethal instances of domestic violence in the United States.”
e) The different categories result in how and what data-gathering takes place:
“The conclusion I arrived at was that the construction of ‘dowry-murder’ as a specific public issue had had institutional effects, such as the generation of ‘official national data’ on the phenomenon…What I have pointed out in this section is how different kinds of ‘focus’ and ‘lacks of focus’ on various aspects of domestic violence in India and the United States also shape the kinds of data that are readily available in the two contexts…While the activism around dowry-murders in India has undoubtedly contributed to the collection of official national data on ‘suspected dowry-murders,’ it might well be that the lack of focus on ‘domestic-violence murders’ in the United States has resulted in there being no widely available official data on suspected domestic-violence murders…”
f) There is a blind spot that prevents depiction of American crime as being Christian: “What I am calling ‘cultural explanations’ of dowry-murders all too frequently invoke ‘Hindu religious views on women‘…The tendency to explain contemporary Indian women’s problems by reference to religious views is by no means a tendency exclusive to Western writers, but crops up quite frequently in writings by contemporary Indians...While ‘Christian values’ have probably coexisted with domestic violence, fatal and nonfatal, in the United States much longer than ‘Hinduism’ has coexisted with dowry-murder, one doubts that our journalist would be inclined, either on her own or as a result of her conversations with most Americans, to explain contemporary domestic violence in terms of Christian views about women’s sinful nature, Eve’s role in the Fall, the sanctity of marriage and the family, or the like…”
Narayan found that wife-murders scaled for population were at least as high in USA as in India, but that this was not an interesting topic for scholarship in women’s studies in USA.
Indian Left’s Denial Mode:
Despite these findings, Vijay insists: “In truth, there is a large scholarship…” to remedy this misperception. He cites Veena O’s excellent book that refutes the prevailing thesis, which I have referenced a lot. He then writes: “Rajiv accuses those who write about dowry and sati of ignoring honor killings in Pakistan, and of giving more weight to the problems within Hinduism than other traditions.” To try to refute my position, Vijay then gives a few counter-examples.
But Narayan, of course, is clear on her position on this bias: “The assumption that ‘Third-World women’s problems’ are fundamentally problems of ‘Third-World women being victimized by Traditional Patriarchal Cultural Practices’ not only looms large in Mary Daly’s chapter on sati, but also seems to be a pervasive assumption within Western public understanding of Third-World contexts, and of women’s issues within them.” Vijay should also read Veena O’s book closely and appreciate the scholar’s angst at the misrepresentation that is pervasive even today. Just as the act of writing a book on atrocities against Dalits does not mean that the matter is resolved, so also the massive cultural bias against Hinduism is too deep to be “taken care of” just because one book (or a few) got written.
Therefore, I propose to Vijay that we should go beyond listing isolated counter-examples, as they do not define the ground reality. Instead, we should use scientific empiricism to conduct ajoint survey of South Asian Studies journal articles over the past twenty-five years, and tabulate comparative statistics about where the preponderance of work has been. This survey would compare (as an illustrative list): Criticizing dowry-murders vs. criticizing honor-killings; blaming dowry-murder on Hinduism vs. blaming it on Indian Christianity/Islam; blaming dowry-murder on Indian culture vs. blaming US wife-killings on Christianity; media treatment using the same comparatives; perceptions of these cultural-associations amongst educated Americans (such as schoolteachers…) and amongst Indians; and so forth. I would be glad to move forward on this concrete project.
My contention is that such a survey would show massive asymmetries, and reveal that Vijay has a blind spot, being inside the system, which makes him see equality of treatment. The mere existence of an article/book, while being good for the scholar’s CV, does not imply diffusion into the public. There are far too many filters along the way, which are institutionally controlled by their chowkidars.
I have discussed cultural biases with school systems, with textbook publishers and with ETS (who designs the questions on world history tests which then become the basis for what teachers must teach in class). The systemic biases are far too deep for Vijay to appreciate from 50,000 feet above ground level.
Vijay complains: “Rajiv’s criticisms of anthropology…is hardly novel.” But I never claimed that it was novel, and what is relevant is whether my criticism is valid or not. If it is valid, it contradicts Vijay’s apology that “empirical data” drives scholarship. On the other hand, what I did claim to be novel was simply ignored in Vijay’s response, namely, my suggestion to Ann Gold (whom Vijay lavishly praises) that she should subject her scholarship to a new kind of peer-review. The peers in my proposal would be Ghatyali village women who she has studied for 20 years, and not fellow-cronies in her discipline. Can Ann Gold face her native informants in a symmetrical arrangement?
“Theory” and Indian pseudo-intellectualism:
Western cultural theories emerged out of a combination of (i) the past two centuries of sociopolitical events that were specific to Western history and (ii) the intellectual responses from the specific protagonists in those societies. By definition, these theories are Eurocentric.
Leaving aside the issue of present or future viability for these theories within the West itself, one must seriously question their transferability and applicability to India. What sustains these trendy theories is that a tiny elitist Indian minority has adopted this “gaze of theory” as their way to “become white” or at least “honorary white.” This avant-gardism is presented to other Indians as proof of their membership into the Western milieu, while the face presented to the West is the contradictory claim of being the authentic voices of India. Furthermore, these theories are powered by the unproven belief that in order to enjoy the fruits of modern technology, Indians must adopt these Eurocentric cultural theories and reject their own native worldviews. How this belief has itself been a part of the colonial agenda remains unexplored because it would expose the desi theorists.
Indian postcolonialists (who started with good intentions) have failed to successfully challenge either the theory or the academic politics. In fact, these scholars are under the domain of both (a) Western-controlled cultural theories and (b) Western-controlled academic governance. They are like outsourced coolies who sustain and enhance the theory and the politics of the Western Knowledge Factory. In other words, they are working for the cartel.
I can sympathize with Vijay that his cohorts are heavily invested in this endeavor and cannot easily afford to write-off these investments. My forthcoming post will deal with the academic cartel’s power politics.
Published: February 11, 2004