Review of Imagining Hinduism

Review of Imaging Hinduism: A Postcolonial perspective. By Sharada Sugirtharajah. Routledge, 2003. 164 pages 

 This book is the first of its kind to bring post-colonial perspectives into a study of Hinduism. Consequently, there are no conventional reference points for the author to use to build her narrative. She has to figure out how to use the conceptual apparatus of the one to study the other. In this sense, although the book is experimental in its nature, there is nothing hesitant or tentative about some of the conclusions she draws. How successful is the author in bringing the two, the study of Hinduism and a post-colonial perspective, together? If someone is influenced by post-colonial thought, the judgment will have to be in the positive. However, having never been enamored by this genre of thinking, I find her framework both limiting and damaging to the study of Hinduism. Before I identify some of my problems, a few words about the book are necessary.

Each chapter conveniently divides into two recognizable parts: one part where the author tells her narrative and the other in which she explains in a transparent way the basic concepts she uses in the course of that chapter. Admirably free of jargon, which is definitely not one of the virtues of post-colonial writings, the author succinctly explains the meaning and use of some of the crucial concepts of this genre of thinking and writing in one part of each chapter. In the other, she plots the trajectories pursued by of some of the colonial writers on Hinduism.

To the students of Hinduism, the figures talked about are relatively familiar: William Jones, Max Müller, William Ward and John Farquhar. Each is given a full chapter and the discussion of their ideas is rich and nuanced but, ultimately, unsatisfactory. In the last chapter, she takes up one of the aspects that agitate all those who study Hinduism: the practice of sati, the practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

In the introduction, the author lays out her project and her ambition: “This volume aims to show how Hinduism came to be tailored to fit the varied hermeneutical and ideological positions of both western and Indian interpreters, all of whom, on their own terms, tried to homogenize a loosely knit tradition, and invest it with a tight structure, thereby making it static; fixed and palatable” (ix, italics mine). This theme is the leitmotiv: homogenization of a tradition which makes it static. In the case of each of the authors she treats, she tries to demonstrate the tropes and the strategies they use to achieve this goal without, however, really appreciating the cognitive significance of the question that is never far away from her consciousness: Why did they want to try and homogenize a tradition? In the case of Jones, a “part of his motive” lay in the “needs of the colonial government” (22), but here, it is not a complete explanation (23). In the case of Max Müller, a speculative psychology provides the answer: “his own romantic quest for the lost origins of the European culture” (73). To William Ward, a Christian missionary, his evangelical longings provide the answer: he “essentializes, dramatizes and manipulates” (89) his description of Hinduism to show the “superiority” of Protestant Christianity. Farquhar, despite his desire for an “empathetic understanding” of Hinduism, merely wants to show that Christianity is the fulfillment of Hinduism.

There are two ways of looking at these explanations. One is to draw attention to the varied set of “motives.” However, in doing so, one is merely trying to hide the fact of indulging in some very bad arm-chair psychologising. There is no way on earth that one could demonstrate or “prove” the individual psychological motives on the basis of their writings, whether they are books or personal letters. Even if one can provide some plausibility to such a speculation, what, if any, is the relation between a theory and the psychological motive of an author? Unless this question can be satisfactorily answered, the answers are totally ad hoc. And that is the second way of looking at such explanations: they are ad hoc and do not further the cause of knowledge. One could as well say that the traveler’s diarrhea inflicted Jones, which is why he could never forgive the natives. Why would this speculation be any less acceptable than the “administrative needs” of the British East India Company?

In fact, there are two major challenges facing any study such as this one: one set of challenges arises from the subject matter; the other set has its origins in the limitations of post-colonial thought. Let me begin with the last.

The first and the most obvious problem is about the usefulness of a post-colonial perspective. What precisely is the theoretical gain of using such a perspective? Apart from simply stating that “knowledge is bound to power” or that one uses the trope of a “child” to describe the Indian civilization to show the “superiority” of the western culture and civilization, there are no other cognitive advantages. The disadvantages, by contrast, are many. Each claim from a post-colonial perspective generates so many questions that cry out for an answer that it is simply amazing to see them done away with some cliché from the arsenal. Consider just a random selection of questions thata few of the chapters raise. It is indeed a fact that the British were very keen to discover the original legal texts from the Indian traditions and codify them. But why were they so keen to do so? It could not be because of their “administrative needs.” The Islamic colonial rule was in place for centuries before that, and these rulers did not codify legal texts for their “administrative needs.” Why, then, could the British not follow the Mogul example? Or again, the Protestant evangelical need to show the “superiority” of Protestant Christianity was nowhere equal to the Muslim belief in the superiority of Islam or the latter’s drive to convert the Kaffirs. Why, then, did the West do what the Muslims never did, namely try and understand Hinduism by “imaginatively constructing” it?

Consider a different kind of question that emerges from the last chapter: the need to defend or attack the practice of burning the widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands by referring to the scriptural sanction for this practice. If we follow the details of this debate in colonial India, there is one staggering fact that cries out for an explanation. The British did not ban this practice straightaway, whatever their denominational affiliations, but sought instead to find out whether the Indian scriptures sanctified it. I know of no single instance of any British official condoning it; without exception, they considered it inhuman and barbaric. Nevertheless, they first wanted to know what the Indian scriptures said of this practice. Why? Why did they not ban it straightaway? Surely, these questions cannot be answered by table thumping and hand waving in the direction of “colonial exigencies.”

If anything, because Sharada Sugirtharajah does not raise or answer these questions, she runs the risk of simplifying some of her criticisms to such an extent that they end up becoming ridiculous. Let me take an example. One of her criticisms which is also the standard diet in post-colonial thinking is the leitmotiv of the book. There is no one homogenized “Hinduism” but merely multiple, “loosely knit Hinduisms.” One does not need any philosophical sophistication to realize that this standard criticism is completely untenable. There is nothing logically, linguistically, or even philosophically wrong in using “Hinduism” in the singular even where the word refers to a multiplicity and plurality of phenomena. On the contrary, such use is absolutely essential. As homo Sapiens, we belong to a single species. However, by indicating that we belong to a single species, there is no suggestion anywhere that this species is either “monolithic” or that there is no “diversity.” To speak of “Hinduisms” in the plural, and to deny its singular use, is an expression of philosophical, logical, and linguistic illiteracy; it does not express any conceptual sophistication. The very possibility of “Hinduisms” making sense depends on the guarantee that “Hinduism” makes sense.

Concomitant to this post-colonial stance, a huge explanatory problem comes into existence. Why did generations of writers from the West fail to appreciate the multiplicity and complexity of Hinduism, if they indeed failed in appreciating this fact so evident to every post-colonial writer? I am aware of the answers that float around, including the many ego-flattering ones. The problem with them is their ad hoc nature: they merely pick up some or another random difference between the past and the present (lack of information, “wrong” philosophical presupposition, colonialism, etc) and simply postulate or allege a “causal” relationship.

To appreciate the absurdity of such “explanations” consider another random collection of such differences. The earlier generations failed in appreciating the depth and complexity of “Hinduism” because: (a) Bush was not the president of the United States; (b) the X-Files had not yet been screened; (c) this reviewer was not yet born; (d) the European Union did not have 25 member states . . . . Why does one random collection “explain” and not the other?

I consider this question the biggest challenge and a litmus test to any and all studies into the history of Hinduism. If one is inclined to say that the earlier generations failed, the onus is on the claimant to come up with a reasoned “explanation” of such a failure without appealing to ad hoc arguments. Pointing at imperialism and colonialism and what have you is no answer unless one is able to show what the relationship is between the one and the other. Here, the track record of post-colonial thought has been abysmal so far. If the author of this book was not blinded by this genre of thinking, she would have seen it as well.

The second problem that faces any and all attempts like this book is the relationship between the Christian theology and the study of Hinduism. Increasingly, it is becoming accepted that the former has shaped the latter. But this insight merely increases the complexity of the task: those who criticize the earlier generations of thinkers in their failure and lay this failure at the doorstep of their Christian understanding need to exhibit a superior mastery in the field of Christian theological discussions as well. It is not sufficient anymore to merely note that Max Müller was “influenced” by Protestant thinking. One has to show (a) not merely how and in what sense such an influence can be traced in his writings but also (b) more importantly what is wrong with that influence. What is wrong with the influence exerted by the Protestant theology? To simply wave one’s hands vaguely in the direction of “ideological” influence is to say and show nothing. The stakes merely go up: What indeed is wrong with ideological influences in the study of religion? Is one contrasting “science” with “ideology”? In which case, how does a “scientific” study of Hinduism look like?

Although one cannot blame the author for not raising or answering these questions in this slim volume, I would have liked to know whether she is cognizant of these issues. Nothing in the book suggests that she is; by the same token, nothing in the book suggests that she is not. I hope she takes up these issues in her future research.

Quite apart from these challenges, the nature of the subject matter raises other kinds of problems as well. The most obvious lacuna lies in the selection of the authors when the book is about “Imagining Hinduism.” Quite apart from the fact that these authors are well-known figures in the British study of Hinduism, there is nothing else that brings them together in the confines of a single volume. It is almost as though these authors, all on their own, came up with the constructions they did come up with. The rest of Europe simply plays no role in the narrative that Sharada Sugirtharajah pens. Of course, there are explanations for this oversight; the most obvious one, perhaps, is the author’s lack of mastery in other European languages. However, this has been the bane of most Anglo-Saxon writings on this subject. The foundations, the frameworks, and even most of the content for these authors were prepared in Continental Europe first; it was in continental Europe that the work of the Asiatic Society resonated first before it moved people in the British Isles. Even the schism in Christianity took place in continental Europe first. If one is unable to bring the absolutely vital contributions of the continental Europeans into the picture, our understanding of the “imaginative construction of Hinduism” will not merely be poor; it will also be distorted and one-sided. It will be distorted because one of the hobbyhorses, the “exigencies of the British colonial rule” which is the “favorite” song of the post-colonials, used to explain the construction of Hinduism will bite dust. It will be one-sided because we will have no understanding why these earlier generations of scholars claimed what they did claim.

Correlated to the above problem is the absence of context. This is a kind of history writing that ends up denying intelligibility to its subject matter. We have some big names, intellectual giants of their time no doubt, floating in an intellectual vacuum. They appear to have no precedents, either in the commonsense ideas that floated around in their time or in the debates of their age. Consequently, both the questions confronting these authors and the answers they provide become unintelligible. Instead of a history of ideas that is supposed to help us understand the nature and status of the study of Hinduism, the narrative itself becomes an opaque puzzle. What were the intellectual and cognitive problems faced by the earlier generations of writers? Where did these problems emerge from? Not answering these questions is to take away the crucial instrument we need to evaluate the adequacy of their answers.

By embracing the post-colonial perspective, I think Sharada Sugirtharajah has done a great disservice to herself. Despite being eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable, the book is beset with problems inherited from her fascination for post-colonial thinking. However, despite this deficiency, I consider this book an indispensable companion to any classroom teaching of Hinduism. It goes further than the many textbooks on Hinduism I know, and it provides a much needed correction to their representation of Hinduism. It would have been a very good contribution to a study of Hinduism, if the author did not force some avoidable problems on the book. She will do better by getting off the bandwagon of post-colonial thinking and focusing on what she seems to be good at: provide a rich and balanced reading of the original texts and contribute meaningfully to the much needed debate on the nature and structure of Hinduism.