1. The first point is the difficulty involved in specifying what the “real meaning of an experience” consists of. Asking an insider would not help us here: the insider may or may not know what the real meaning of his/her own experience is or even how to go about putting it in words.
2. Assuming that the first problem somehow gets solved, the second problem lies in the multiplicities of such meanings: if people differ on what any particular experience means to them (for instance, what doing Puja to Ganesha means to my brother does not mean the same to my sister), which should we choose and for what reason? This problem is virtually unsolvable, especially when you take the interpretations of the past into consideration as well.
3. This is not an ‘insider/outsider’ issue. If we emphasize the ‘real meaning of lived experience’, it confronts the ‘insiders’ as well as the ‘outsiders’ because neither will have a privileged access to the meanings of other lived experiences. (I might assume that I have a privileged access to my brother’s experience. But this is a just an assumption. By the same token, Jeffrey Kripal might argue that he has spoken to thousands of people and that, therefore, assumes he has a ‘more’ privileged access than I have. Both our assumptions are just that; unjustified assumptions. In my view, they are also unjustifiable.)
4. If we have to get out of this quandary, we need to do something radical with respect to what counts as knowledge and what does not in the field of ‘social sciences’. My response has so far been to accept the best criteria of rationality and scientificity that the study of the history and philosophy of (natural) sciences has brought forth. Not only do I believe that it is possible to build theories in the field of ‘humanities’ that answer these criteria; in fact, I claim I already have. In my book, I have developed hypotheses about religion that can be tested the way you test any hypothesis in, say, physics. (Of course, I also have an ‘explanation’ why it had not happened so far. But that is another issue.)
5. In the book I am now currently writing on ‘ethics’ (it develops an understanding of the Indian ethics and contrasts that with the western normative ethics), the same attitude is present. As far as I can see, my theory about ‘ethics’ can be tested in exactly the same way as well.
6. With respect to what stories are to a culture. This is a question of having some kind of a theory about ‘cultural differences’, the ways in which, say, the Indian culture differs from the western one. Accounting these differences will include, inter alia, such issues as the role of stories in that culture. One of the crucial tests for evaluating your claims about any culture, including the Indian culture, is the extent to which your theory makes sense of the experiences of the Indians without denying, distorting, or transforming those experiences. To come back to my favorite example: such theories about the Indian culture must do what Galileo’s theory did. Not tell us we are hallucinating or wrong about our experiences (as though the experiences could be false!), but show us why we experience the world the way we do.
7. Such a stance places a high demand on an intellectual: not everyone who writes about some culture or another is capable of producing knowledge. Stands to reason. Not everyone who studies physics is capable of doing research in physics either. The exact same thing is applicable to the humanities and the ‘social sciences’. Wendy and her children, in this sense, are not producing knowledge just by reading some books, going to India on extended holidays, and picking up some random nonsense and say that it is an ‘interpretation’ of Indian culture. There is a difference between being ‘erudite’ (or appearing to be one) and producing knowledge. My quarrel with Jeffrey Kripal is whether he has produced knowledge. I have argued he has not and that he cannot. It is up to him to show that contrary is the case. As you no doubt know, he has not.
- Why Social sciences are not providing knowledge, including the likes of Wendy Doniger and her children?
- On explanations that make people stupid—S.N.Balagangadhara