Towards a positive portrayal of Hindu traditions?

What is at stake in the California textbook controversy? Few would agree that it concerns only the image of Hinduism as offered to the pupils of the California state schools. The controversy involves much more than that alone. It is the next phase in the NRI community’s struggle for a less biased and more benign portrayal of Hinduism in the educational system and in American society in general. In the last three years many similar incidents have occurred: the acrimonious debate about ‘Wendy’s Child Syndrome’; the Kripal and Courtright controversies; the indignation about the depiction of Hindu deities on bikini’s, slippers and toilet seats; etc. These transient outbursts express a solid and growing concern about the derogatory conceptions of the Hindu traditions, which still dominate the western societies and academia. In very general terms, the aim of this struggle could be put as follows: to make the world aware of the positive contributions the Indian culture and its traditions have made and can make to humanity. Since this is an aim I share, I would like to assess the NRI community’s progress towards its realization. This evaluation will take the California textbook controversy as a reference point, while addressing some of the broader issues involved.


The American Hindus often state their desire for a more positive portrayal of Hinduism. Hence, they point out, this religion should be represented by ‘insiders’ and by those who are sympathetic towards it. Either Hindus should speak for Hinduism or those ‘outsiders’ who hold a benign view of its teachings. In the California textbook controversy, we encounter an excellent illustration of the results of this approach.

First, there are the recommendations of the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF). These seem very reasonable. The Aryan invasion should be presented as hypothesis rather than fact. When one intends to depict a Brahmin, one would better not use a picture of a Muslim praying to Allah. When one portrays Chandragupta, it is indeed preferable not to use a drawing of a Chinese nobleman or warrior. Obvious mistakes and damaging remarks are removed. So far so good. The problem is these corrections do not constitute much of an alternate portrayal of the Hindu traditions. They merely correct some of the details. These corrections will be acceptable to many Indologists, since the main understanding of Indian culture does not change in any way.

When we turn to the proposals of the Vedic Foundation, however, dramatic changes do occur. Wherever the textbooks say Hindu ‘stories’ or ‘writings’, it wants Hindu ‘scriptures’. Innocent this may seem. However, this move transforms the Hindu traditions with their vast array of rich and complex stories, told and retold in many different ways, into a rigid body of canonical scriptures–much like Christianity or Islam. Consequently, these ‘scriptures’ require protection, because they are no longer stories, but sacred doctrines.

Where the textbooks discuss ‘enlightenment’ and the ‘enlightened’ in the Hindu traditions, the Foundation writes ‘God realization’ and ‘God realized’. ‘Brahman’ is systematically replaced by ‘God’. Again, the implications go beyond mere words. Hindu tradition and its notions of Brahman and enlightenment are not in any way related to anything like the ‘God’ of Christianity–who is believed to be a person without a body who created and governs the universe, but exists outside it. It gets even worse when this Foundation denies that the Hindu traditions revolve around ‘multiple gods’ and reverence towards these various gods. No, they claim, these many deities are in fact one ‘God’ or at most various forms of ‘God’. Ancient Hindus did not go to temples to ‘connect with their gods’, but to ‘worship God’. Once again, when American children and adults read ‘God’ in the textbooks, they will obviously understand the Christian God and not something like the ‘Brahman’ of the Hindu traditions. In fact, when one uses ‘God’ in English, the one possible referent is the Judeo-Christian God–the creator and sovereign of the universe who demands from humanity perfect obedience to his will and exclusive worship of himself. In effect, the proposal of the Vedic Foundation makes this Christian ‘God’ into the main focus of Hinduism.


Does this transformation of the Hindu traditions constitute a positive portrayal? One would think not. Still, some might point out that sixth-graders will not be confused by theological intricacies. However, the point is not so much what American children will or will not grasp, but rather the fact that these Hindus think they are improving upon the dominant image of Hinduism. Here, one might add that the corrections of the Vedic Foundation were subject to the restrictions imposed by the California education department and that they are certainly less harmful than the concerned sections of the textbooks originally were. But are they really?

When the textbooks talk about Hindus worshipping many gods, they inevitably presuppose the Christian image of idolatry or false religion. The very notion of polytheism makes sense only against this background. In English, ‘god’ or ‘theism’ refers to a being like the Judeo-Christian God. Now, of course, there can be only one such Being, since He is supposed to be the Creator and Sovereign of the universe. The universe cannot be governed by many gods. This would result in chaos, instead of the order supposedly created by the Judeo-Christian God’s Will. Consequently, if one says Hindus worship many ‘gods’ or engage in ‘poly-theism’, the logical consequence is these can only be false gods (as opposed to the true God), since they are more than one. This reproduces the Christian theological claim that Hinduism is false religion.

Now take the Vedic Foundation’s suggestion that the many ‘gods’ should be replaced by ‘God’ and ‘many forms of God’ or that ‘Brahman’ should be rendered as ‘God’. As said, ‘God’ in western languages refers to the Creator and Sovereign–a person whose Will governs the universe (everything that ever has been, is and will be). There is no such conception of God to be found in the Hindu traditions. Still, the implication of the Foundation’s corrections is that Hindus do not worship their many gods, but actually worship the one true God without being aware of it. This is a slightly modified version of what Christianity has always said about idolaters or devil-worshippers. They desire to worship the one true God. They thirst for Him, because He has ingrained a sense of divinity in their souls. But the devil seduces them into mistaking himself for the true God and therefore they begin to worship many false gods. Unwittingly, the Vedic Foundation is reproducing the same theological story: Hindus mistakenly believe they worship many gods, but they should become aware that they actually worship the one true God through different forms.

Taking the issue to a level more general than this particular controversy, we can similarly assess another typical dispute. Hinduism has often been described as an inconsistent and incoherent ‘jungle’ of beliefs and practices by the Indologists. A diversity of traditions co-exists within the Hindu fold. One can be a Hindu without accepting any one doctrine as true. Such facts have been taken as expressions of the inchoate nature of this religion. So has the fact that Hindu traditions have experienced relatively few problems in living side by side with religions like Islam and Christianity. Again, this view reproduces the Christian view of pagan idolatry. In James Mill’s words: ‘Whenever indeed we seek to ascertain the definite and precise ideas of the Hindus in religion, the subject eludes our grasp. All is loose, vague, wavering, obscure, and inconsistent. Their expressions point at one time to one meaning, and another time to another meaning; and their wild fictions, to use the language of Mr. Hume, seem rather the playsome whimsies of monkeys in human shape than the serious asservations of a being who dignifies himself with the name of the rational.’

Both the Hindu foundations and western Indologists who are sympathetic towards the Hindu traditions have tried to make this into a benign property of Hinduism. The intrinsic tolerance of Hinduism, they say, stems from its pluralist conception of religious truth. The Hindus believe that all religions are true and therefore they are very tolerant. Prima facie, this may sound nice and comfy. But let us not be misled by first impressions and draw a few implications. If Hindus believe that all religions are true, this implies they must believe that both Islam and Christianity are true i.e. the doctrines of both these religions are true. Christian doctrine claims that God consists of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Islamic doctrine, on the other hand, states that God is one and cannot be a trinity and that He could not have a son who is both divine and human. These two doctrines stand in clear contradiction: both cannot be true at the same time. But according to the current ‘positive’ portrayal of Hinduism, Hindus are not able to see this, since they believe that all religions are true. Thus, this portrayal makes the Hindus into logical cretins, who lack the basic capacity of consistent reasoning.

The same kind of problem recurs in most of the ‘positive’ corrections made by today’s Hindu organizations to the dominant image of Hinduism. Does the problem in the contemporary understanding of the Hindu traditions really revolve around a few derogatory remarks and an occasionally negative tone? Should one merely leave out the two or three sexually-oriented paragraphs in Courtright’s Ganesha book in order to correct the mistaken portrayal? Do we just have to ban Kripal’s silly book and Witzel’s obnoxious remarks to come to a better assessment of the contributions of the Indian culture to humanity? Should we make ‘God’ into the focus of Hinduism in order to have American students appreciate the richness of the Hindu traditions? It seems not.

The negativity is ingrained in the very structure of the dominant image of the Indian culture and its traditions. The entire understanding of the Hindu traditions today is constituted by Christian theological schemes. Therefore, one has to reject the understanding at the root and replace it by a cognitively superior description of the Indian culture. Otherwise, one will simply add ‘positive-sounding’ layers to the currently dominant conception. Instead of improving the understanding of the Hindu traditions, such corrections simply hide the problems we are facing today in the study of the Indian culture. They superficially cover up the negativity. While doing so, they conceal the main problems to be addressed in the development of an alternative understanding of the Hindu traditions.


What, then, is going wrong in the struggle of the NRI community? After all, its general aim of acknowledging and demanding recognition of the positive contributions of the Indian culture is a noble and legitimate one. So is the attempt to resist the negative representation of Hinduism in the western academia and educational systems. Yet, the difficulties arise when an alternate conception of the Hindu traditions is asked for. At that point, it becomes clear that no positive alternative is available today among ‘insiders’ and scholars sympathetic to Hinduism. That is, in spite of its benevolent tone, the understanding they offer makes all the mistakes of the dominant negative portrayal.

The same thing has happened in the past. In the nineteenth century, the Romantic Orientalists and Hindu reformers also contested the dismissive and offensive picture of India and her traditions. This picture had been created by missionaries and travelers, who were convinced they would find nothing but devil worship, false religion and evil practices in the society of the subcontinent. The Orientalists and Hindu reformers attacked the ‘evangelists’ and ‘anglicists’ with the same kind of vehemence that has returned today in the struggle against the dominant forms of Indology. But they failed miserably to give an alternative understanding of the Indian culture. In fact, they succumbed to an era of evangelical propaganda and colonial education. Eventually, the colonial inferiority complex of the nineteenth-century Hindu reformers inspired a massive attempt to transform the native traditions into a Hindu theism–Protestant theology dressed up in Hindu garb.

In my analysis, what happens today is a replay of those events. Michael Witzel, Wendy Doniger and their allies have taken on the role of missionaries like Charles Grant; while the Vedic Foundation and people like Rajeev Malhotra have become the Rammohan Roy’s and Dayananda Saraswati’s of the twenty-first century. If the battle is fought at this level, the outcome is predictable. The Hindus will accept the terms of description as fixed by the western culture, just like the nineteenth-century Hindu reformers succumbed to the colonial image of the Indian culture. The entire struggle will take place within the intellectual constraints set by American society and its academia.

In the end, the American Hindus will truly complete the work of the missionaries: they will have converted themselves into Hindu Christians. This is what the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj and their progeny have done in India; this is what the Hindu foundations in America will do if they continue along the same lines. Like the nineteenth-century reform movements, the foundations of today are sanitizing the Hindu traditions into a proper religion according to Judeo-Christian standards. They are neither continuing the traditions as passed on by the Indian ancestors nor critically reflecting upon them. Instead, they transform Hindu tradition into a second-hand Christianity.


How could we explain this sidetracking of the struggle of the Hindu community in America? This group lives in the West and it legitimately challenges the West’s negative stereotypes of India. What we have to understand today, is how the dominant framework of western societies compels them to reshape their traditions into a Christian mould while they are doing so. American identity politics seems to force each minority community to assert itself as a separate ‘church’ with its own distinct religious or ethnic identity. Only in this way do western societies allow the local Hindu communities to strive for recognition and protection.

If I didn’t know better, I would suspect that what is happening today is part of a planned strategy. The tremendous success of the NRI community in American society is threatening at several levels: (a) after the Chinese, it is the first time members of a ‘pagan’ culture are this successful in Christian America; (b) this success has made the NRI community aware of the fact that its own culture and its Hindu traditions have something to offer to the world; (c) hence, they contest the negative portrayal of their culture in Christian America and (unlike the Chinese) they have stridently joined the debates in the media and academia; (d) to the WASP-majority, this is very different from what the Catholics, Jews and Muslims did earlier, since it concerns a ‘heathen religion’, which is as different from the dominant Protestant culture as anything could possibly be. How does one neutralize such a threat?

The answer is obvious: by shaping the energy, the vehemence and the intellectual acuity of the American Hindus in a particular way, which defuses the attack. You give them an easy target: the Indologists who speak and write derogatorily about India and Hinduism. You allow them to assert the value of their culture within certain limits: they merely become the next group to demand recognition of their own religious and ethnic identity (after the Catholics, the Jews, the Blacks, etc.). Thus, the NRI community becomes the next church-like ghetto-culture in a society that revolves around identity politics. They no longer pose any threat to the mainstream WASP-culture. They do not even offer an alternative way of being.

Naturally, things do not happen in a planned way like this. There is no WASP conspiracy against the NRI-community and its self-assertion. The problem lies at the level of the very structure of American society. Its identity politics has defused any threatening cultural alternative in the past. To borrow one of Rajeev Malhotra’s ploys: at first, the Irish Catholics were not regarded as ‘whites’ by the WASP-community. After a struggle in which the Irish were gradually forced to form a Protestant church with Catholic overtones, they were accepted as a proper white community. Next, the same thing happened to the Jews. Later other communities followed. Now, it is the turn of the Hindus. Their cultural identity will be accepted and recognized once it takes a recognizable, non-threatening form, once it ceases being a true alternative to the dominant WASP-culture. This is the task assigned to the Vedic foundations and the Rajeev Malhotra’s in today’s America. This explains why, for instance, they find support among the conservatives in the California board: these conservatives recognize and acknowledge the fact that the American Hindus are the next community to aspire the proper ‘ethnic community’ and ‘religious identity’ status in American society.


To conclude, the NRI-community stands at historical crossroads today: (a) It can become ‘white’ like the Irish, the Jews and other communities have before. This implies it will make its own culture into the next ghetto within the western culture. It will then transform the Hindu traditions into a Hindu-Protestant church with its own sacrosanct teachings and inviolable sensitivities. The tragic consequence is that the NRI foundations become more harmful to the Hindu traditions than the Witzels, the Donigers and the Southern Baptist missionaries of this world. (b) Or it can reflect upon the nature of Indian culture and its traditions and the capacity these have to offer fruitful alternatives to the western culture and its ways of being. Then, it cannot but look for a new way of understanding the Hindu traditions, which goes far beyond the second-hand Christianity of the nineteenth-century Hindu reformers.

In case the NRI community takes the second road, it will find strong intellectual support in the research program developed by S.N. Balagangadhara. During the last ten years, he has built a new way of understanding the Indian culture and its traditions. Very recently, one of his ground-breaking proposals has taken shape in an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (December 2005, Vol. 73, no. 4, 987-1013). As he argues there, the agenda for the future does not hinge upon the question ‘who speaks for Hinduism?’ Rather, it revolves around the question of how to speak for the Indian traditions. How can we make the insights of these traditions available to the twenty-first century? How could we demonstrate that the Indian culture and its Hindu traditions have contributed a vast storehouse of knowledge to humanity, rather than shout that it is so? What Balagangadhara makes clear is that this is not a task for ‘insiders’ alone. The knowledge of the Hindu traditions belongs to humanity. In the same way, all human beings who are willing to make the effort, regardless of skin color, religious identity, ethnic background can contribute to the restoration of these traditions to their rightful position.