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Stereotyping Hinduism in American Education

Stereotyping Hinduism in American Education
by Rajiv Malhotra

Copyright – The Infinity Foundation, All Rights Reserved

This essay is based on an inquiry in which I wondered why:

  • Hindu kids and even adults in America are apologetic about their religion, generally preferring to distance themselves from it and keep quiet about it.
  • Educational material used to teach about Hinduism focuses on caste, idol worship, lack of social values among Hindus, and other negative portrayals.
  • A major academic web site examines the Bhagavad Gita in negative terms of Arjuna killing his relatives because of his Hindu outlook.
  • Teaching grants to train secondary school teachers on religious pluralism have been used to develop material that portrays Rama as ‘oppressing’ women and lower castes.
  • There is minimal coverage given to the positive contributions by India’s civilization to mathematics, science, medicine, metallurgy, linguistics, logic, and other ‘rational’ areas; and when pointed out, such avoidance is sometimes defended.
  • Most of the educational material on Indic religions is written very authoritatively by Americans who have advanced degrees in Sanskrit and/or Religious Studies, who have spent years researching in India, and would easily impress anyone with their scriptural knowledge about India.
  • Very few Indians have gone for academic careers in Religion or Philosophy, and those in such careers must be very cautious not to step out of line in complaining about the above matters.

There are two major families of religions in the world:

  • The Greco-Semitic family consists of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, characterized by their faith that God revealed his truths to man through prophets only, that these revelations ended early, and hence these revelations must be inferred from the interpretation of the original texts, parts of which have been codified into the equivalent of “law” books by human.
  • The Indic family consists mainly of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, which combine revelations through historical persons with truths discovered by an endless line of humans (rishis, buddhas, etc) upon attaining higher states of consciousness attainable by all humans.

This essay addresses how the Greco-Semitic religious paradigms, being the prevailing undercurrents in Western civilization’s narrative of the humanities, have influenced the portrayal of the Indic religions. Hinduism is used in this essay to make the points concerning Indic religions, but similar issues also apply to all Indic religions. This paper raises the following questions:

A. Is Hinduism being portrayed inappropriately through Greco-Semitic concepts and categories? For example, monotheism and polytheism are a priori assumed as mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories, and Hinduism gets incorrectly classified as polytheistic. The notion of a ‘complex unity’ that is neither purely mono nor poly is absent from the discourse.
B. Should Hinduism be described primarily through the lens of anthropology and socio-political history, or does it offer us universal ideas in the same sense as Greek thought does?
C. Does Hinduism have something useful to say in the fields known as consciousness science, humanistic and transpersonal psychology? Did these post-modern Western disciplines receive key ideas from the East, and are there further opportunities for collaboration?

  1. The challenge of teaching about Hinduism

The intellectual spectacles formed by one’s own culture determine how one perceives the world. According to the postmodern theory of constructivism, no meaning of any kind ever stands on its own. Instead, there is always mediation by prior mental programming and assumptions, even though these biases might be unconsciously applied. As W.C. Smith, E. W. Said and others have noted, we select, group, and organize the multiplicity of events experienced within our own conceptual categories to give coherence to the world. Are we aware of the effects of mapping other religions onto Greco-Semitic theological categories, even when there is no intentional agenda? Is the narrative being colored by beliefs and even dogma, perhaps unconsciously, of the academic narrator? Does the process known as academic ‘objectivity’ in fact facilitate a facade to cloak the prejudices of the scholar, and if so, how might one extricate oneself from the presuppositions of one’s heritage?

To appreciate the challenge further, consider the following essential characteristics of Hinduism:

  1. It has no founder whose history could become the exclusive benchmark of truth.
  2. The prophetic-theistic branches of Hinduism (such as most Vaishnavism) believe in and celebrate God’s prolific communication with humanity in many different times and places, and using many different methods of revelation. Such prophecies have resemblance to those in the Greco-Semitic religions, except that God’s interventions are very few and exclusive in the Semitic religions.
  3. Even more challenging to characterize in Western conceptual terms are the non-prophetic aspects of Hinduism. These encourage humans to achieve self-realization by attaining a level of consciousness where the ultimate truth gets experienced directly, unmediated by scriptural or other intellectual context, and not requiring one to wait until after death. Teachings of rishis who achieved this are common in Hinduism and are subsequently given scriptural status by their followers. This has resulted in a vast diversity of literature embedded in the many micro-cultures of India. Since Greco-Semitic religions do not have adequate conceptual categories to deal with the psychology of higher states of consciousness, such study has been appropriated by consciousness studies programs, humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and post-modernism in the Western academy. Hinduism’s portrayal within religious studies generally ignore the study of yoga and consciousness.
  4. Hinduism endorses multiple spiritual paths as being valid, and encourages experimentation and personalization of practice. The spectrum of beliefs even tolerates ‘secular’ Hindus who profess no strong religious beliefs.

While other religions are compared to a pillar or a monolithic palm tree, Hinduism is more comparable to a banyan tree. Such a tree has many trunks and new ones keep developing and taking root. Often completely new trees start from a particular branch, taking root within that branch. Branches merge into a network maze that is non hierarchical. A creature whose world were such a complex banyan tree would find meaningless questions asked by someone from a monolithic pillar or palm tree universe, such as: where is the root or main trunk from which the tree begins; which is the ‘right’ path to get to a place on the tree; what component of the tree is in control of the entire tree, etc. Likewise, there is no simple way of talking about what Hinduism ‘has’ or ‘believes’ or ‘accepts’. Many Hindus may well believe or accept certain principles, but one cannot say that of others. Hinduism is more like a mother of diverse religious experiences and thought. Hindu often feel that it should retain its role as the crucible for new creative experiences and their incubation, rather than ossified and frozen into dogmas. This is no different than not having a canonization of art, music, or notions of beauty into rigid formulations.

How does one teach such a religion responsibly to avoid tabloid-style sensationalism as illustrated below?

  1. Examples of inappropriate context in portraying Hinduism

This section illustrates these difficulties by giving contemporary examples of portrayal.

Example 1: ‘Arjuna chose to kill his relatives’.

The University of Evansville web site on Ancient History inappropriately positions a key passage from the Bhagavad-Gita. It says that Arjuna found himself justifying the killing of his relatives on the basis that they would get reincarnated. It compares this with Schindler (and by implication drags the Nazis into the context), and asks the student to examine whether such justification of killing would be acceptable to Western ethics. Then, rather patronizingly, it suggests that such comparisons would be improper (after having already planted the seed for the negative context), because what might be acceptable to another culture cannot be applied to our own (“Western”) way of thinking.

Suppose instead, the presentation had compared Arjuna with General Eisenhower on the eve of launching D-Day in World War II, wondering whether he was morally right by killing so many persons. Or suppose the comparison had been made with General Colin Powell and President Bush on the eve of launching the desert war against Saddam Hussein, wondering about the ethics and morality of war. Had there been such association with popular American heroes, there would have been a sympathetic context in which Arjuna’s dilemma would have been presented.

The authors who wrote the web site material cannot be accused of falsifying the content, but they could be guilty of putting it within an inappropriate context. A meaning gets completely changed merely by the skillful use of analogies, examples, and metaphors, especially before young impressionable minds. Is this honest and fair portrayal?

Example 2: ‘Hinduism is polytheistic, and hence by implication, pagan’.

Dr. Margaret Case, former editor of Princeton University Press, is quoted in the August-September-October 1996 issue of Hinduism Today as follows: “Americans find India much more inscrutable and don’t have as warm an empathy for Indian things as they do for Chinese and Japanese culture. I have always found that hard to explain because I love India so much. A lot of it has to do with the reaction to what is perceived as a polytheistic culture by the West…”

Let us examine why such ‘polytheistic’ prejudice exists. A recent article in Quest magazine explains at length how Judaism started monotheism in the world. It positions Semitism as superior to other religions based on this distinction. Given modern civilization’s value of monotheism as opposed to say polytheism, it positions religions such as Hinduism as being akin to the pagan religions that Judaism replaced. Popular books with this theme (of Semitic origins of Western civilization) are now proliferating.

In the Greco-Semitic context, polytheism meant belief in many gods as ultimate realities, and not as different images or aspects of one reality. Such writers conveniently ignore that the Upanishads clearly define one single ultimate reality, and can hardly be considered polytheistic. The ultimate reality may, at the practitioner’s option, be viewed as impersonal or as personal (i.e. as Saguna Brahman). There is no ceiling in Hinduism on how many such personalized views may be constructed by devotees, since all views are inherently approximate representations of God. For example, in Vaishnavism, Krishna is clearly the single God and very personal. In Shaivism, Param-Shiva is the single ultimate reality, both personal and impersonal and yet beyond such human categories.

This notion of polytheism as a defining characteristic of Hinduism is perhaps the single most serious misunderstanding about Hinduism today. Hans Kung acknowledges it in his book “Christianity & World Religions”, on page 260: ” Should there be a double standard for Christianity and Hinduism…If we understand “God” to be the highest and deepest principle of all, the very first and last reality in the world, in human beings, and in things, then most of the Hindus are monotheists….Hindus, too, believe in only one God…. simultaneously impersonal and personal……But if we understand “God” to be all those beings who are venerated through invocation, prayer, hymns, or the offering of gifts, then a great many Christians are polytheists.” Again, on page 138: “We shall need to discard a few concepts: for example, the idea that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.”

The Greco-Semitic categories, when applied to portray Hinduism, are seriously confused between plurality and polytheism. A fairer comparison between Greco-Semitic religions and Hinduism would not be through the lens of monotheism verses polytheism. Instead, it would be a distinction between:

  • Greco-Semitism’s exclusivity of God’s revelation through a unique set of historical circumstances, and hence privileging certain people’s conception as exclusively valid, verses.
  • Hinduism’s plurality of human conceptions of the divine resulting from a plurality of revelations in different forms along with innumerable instances of discovery through human enlightenment achieved by many methods. Hinduism’s plurality is at many levels: multiple spiritual methodologies; multiple historical instances of humans knowing the highest truth by these methodologies and by revelations; and multiple human conceptions of the divine resulting from all this diversity. Furthermore, there is no limit on the magnitude of this plurality.

Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ elaborates at length the traditional Christian belief that all the “pagan” (Greek, Egyptian etc) deities were ‘created’ from the ‘fallen’ angels who took the side of Lucifer/Satan and so were hurled headlong into the infernal abyss specially created for them. From this Hell they then rose with the intention of turning into evil God’s newest creation – the Earthly Paradise. This belief gets superimposed in the portrayal of Hinduism consciously or unconsciously, since Hindu deities are placed in a polytheistic context:

  • Many average Americans regard Hinduism as neo-pagan.
  • Students of Hinduism courses have incorrectly concluded that polytheism defines their core understanding of Hinduism.
  • Modern Hindus, having often discovered their own traditions as portrayed through the British education system in India, often have such doubts as well.

Doesn’t that give a divine sanction to the evangelists’ Hindu bashing – after all they are only saving Hindus from these devilish designs that come disguised as ‘gods’. It is clear that the subtle and varied role of complex unity in Hinduism has not been understood.

Example 3: “Clinical psychology should help clients get out of the negative archetype of Kali and advance them towards the positive archetype of goddess Diana.”

At the Tucson 2000 Conference on the Science of Consciousness, one of the exhibits was by Professor Peterson from Toronto University’s Psychology Department. This example illustrates how misrepresentation of Hinduism by religious studies academics sometimes gets picked up and magnified by others (such as this psychology professor), who are not so expert in Hinduism and get used in a ‘novel’ but dangerous way. In his book “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief”, Routledge, 1999, he starts with a detailed and well-diagramed analysis of how humanity’s ideas evolve through stages such as ritual, myths etc, before they finally reach religion and philosophy. Deep-rooted archetypes store various psychological fixations, which he shows with art from around the world.

The conclusion is in a diagram with various pictures. It shows ‘anxiety-threat’ on one side, and this is depicted with Kali in all her details. On the other side of the diagram is ‘hope-promise’ depicted by a picture of the Greco-Roman Goddess Diana. The message of several hundred pages basically boils down to the conclusion that one must rise above the evil-terror-anxiety-threat side that drives humans (i.e. the archetype of Kali) and move to the positive side depicted by Diana. This is a college textbook on psychology by a major publisher.

Nobody would argue with the suggestion to move from negative to positive archetypes. But a better method of illustration would have been to use another Hindu deity also as the hope-promise archetype in the diagram. Hinduism is rather rich in deities depicting positive aspects, and there is no need to switch to the context of the West when depicting the positive side. The Hindu Goddess has millions of forms in which people have conceived of her, of which four are especially popular: wisdom (Maheshwari), strength (Durga-Kali), harmony (Lakshmi), and perfection (Saraswati). Within the ‘strength’ aspect, Kali is but one of her many manifestations, Durga being another popular form. And even within Kali, there are at least three levels of worship: as terrorizer to be feared and placated is the lowest view; as Shakti expressing herself as the power of nature is the middle level; and at an even higher level she is the divine power operating through the devotee. The book’s author’s understanding of Kali is incorrect. But even if she were the icon of evil, it would still not justify in a textbook on psychology to make the contrast with Diana. He should not have departed from Hindu symbolism when it came to explaining the positive outlook on life. His methodology portrayed the West as the positive culture while the East as the proverbial ‘world negating’ burden on humanity. In fact, any religion could supply the author with both kinds of art, the dark side and the light side.

If he wanted to remain in Western iconography throughout, he could have chosen negative pictures from the holocaust, witch burning, and genocide of the Native Americans, the list of candidates for negative imagery being rather long. So why would a college text depict the dark side using an Eastern tradition and the positive side using Western tradition, unless there is also a subliminal message intended to position one culture better than the other. This is a case where the facts in isolation might be correct but their juxtaposition and context creates a false impression. The effect of this psychology book might be that clinical psychologists will attend weekend seminars on diagnosing and treatment “Kali syndrome”, as the archetype afflicting clients who suffer from negative conditions. I could not help being reminded of the racial stereotyping by the media until the 1970s, in which crime and drugs were depicted showing blacks and Hispanics, while positive achievements were depicted using whites.

Amazingly, other colleagues of this psychologist have been very busy appropriating the pioneering knowledge of Indic spiritualists precisely in the realm of higher states of consciousness – including Jung, Wilber, Maslow, etc. So one team of psychologists takes the cream of Indic contribution an re-labels it as their own, while the other team such as this book’s writer, are busy enhancing the negative stereotypes about the same source tradition.

Example 4: “Hinduism involves weird practices repulsive to Westerners”

A teacher of Hinduism at a prestigious US University told me of a conference where she had an argument with a Hindu pundit because she wanted to discuss animal sacrifices by Hindus, while he insisted on denying such practices. She did not want persons present to think of this pundit’s views as the “true authentic voice of Hinduism”, and therefore felt compelled to argue.

Yes, I too have come across the practice of animal sacrifice in a Hindu temple in Nepal recently. But my position would be that one should responsibly choose whether the “true authentic voice” should be at the lowest or at a higher standard within a tradition. Would one responsibly explain Christianity’s true authentic voice as that of its founders, scriptures and contemporary leaders, or would one represent it in terms of the conduct of those Christians who are at the low end of the spiritual scale? One can find many poorly educated, low demographic and unethical persons who are proud to be born-again Christians and have full faith that they will be saved by Jesus. But these would not be the role models for Christianity, and developing a video series or textbooks based on their lives would not be what a Christian would like to have their kids taught in an introduction to Christianity. Nevertheless, it could make colorful anthropology. Perhaps, as a percentage of India’s population, those who do animal sacrifices are no larger than the percent of Christians in New York who are on various fringes of religious practices. By way of another comparison, a manipulative context designed for denigrating Christianity to vegetarians could suggest that when a Christian says grace before eating meat, he is mentally ‘sacrificing’ the meat to God, which would make it animal sacrifice. Would the author be better of quantifying what percentage of Hindus would be doing such a practice, or how many of the various Hindu denominations would endorse it, so as to avoid portraying it as a mainstream practice in an introductory textbook.

Consider another issue, that of sati. Sati was undoubtedly held as a practice in some regions of India and to this day, some satis are worshipped in parts of Rajasthan and U.P. as goddesses. But there has been only one confirmed case of sati in the past dozen years, which is smaller than the percentage of Christians convicted as serial killers. So my problem with such portrayals is not that they mention false things, but that the context (and quantity) in which students understand them makes them appear as standard for Hinduism. A sober and responsible examination of this issue can be made without apology or bigotry, within the context of all the variety of inhuman problems (which do not even have the condemnation of sati) associated with Christianity – like the defense of apartheid until recent times, and even now of racism through recourse to scripture (e.g., Bob Jones University).

Two criteria could be used to define what constitutes a standard practice. One could be the frequency of occurrence of a given practice as a percentage of total Hindus, and the second could be whether the leaders of specific denominations condone that practice. For example, what would the head from a Shakti tradition consider as the relative level of spiritual advancement at which animal sacrifice is a practice? When teaching a new religion, academicians should stop highlighting the photogenic anthropology that portrays the fringes and should focus on building foundational concepts.

As other examples of the perversion of Hindu symbolism in academic teaching, Shiva has been portrayed as the sex god, goddesses as sexual fantasies of rishis, etc. Many otherwise well-educated Americans have told me that Hindu deities remind them of devil worship. One American ashram in New York State with Eastern practices received threats from neighbors claiming that they were engaged in witchcraft.

III. Orientalism and reduction to anthropology

Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s “The Meaning and End of Religion” posits that religion is taught from the West’s ‘conditioned spectacles’, thereby emphasizing the exotic, peculiar, ritual and cultural aspects of other religions. Smith highlights the distinction between faith and tradition, faith being based on the inner first person experience of a believer. Tradition seeks to follow the footsteps of a spiritual master and worship him, while faith seeks to experience what he experienced and view him as a mirror and archetype. While prototype paths are useful guidelines, faith does not always have a fixed methodology; one experiments and discovers one’s own path or dharma, and spirituality can also arise spontaneously. History, culture, rituals, and videos can only capture the outer tradition and not faith, he maintains. Academics often emphasize the photogenic aspects of tradition and not faith or inner experience, especially if the proper context is missing from the presentations. The students’ pre-existing indoctrination and media prejudices become unconsciously superimposed in the interpretation.

As Ashis Nandy has said, the ‘Orient’ was a construction serving as the inversion of the ‘West’ and representing the projection of the shadow side of Western culture. The needs of colonialism, he argues, defined Western and Eastern images as reverses of each other, with the East being portrayed as ‘poetic’, ‘mystical’, irrational, uncivilized and feminine.

Furthermore, the Western category of ‘mysticism’ was constructed under influence of the Church’s fear that it would undermine the Church’s authority as institutional mediator between man and God. Hence, the Church did not allow mysticism to develop. Luther outright condemned mysticism as being Platonic and unchristian. Post-Kantian intellectual culture defined it in opposition to rationality and therefore not acceptable to academics. This dichotomy between rational and mystical still remains large in the West. On the other hand, India’s yogis and Buddhist meditators pioneered in systematic consciousness research for centuries, and therefore these traditions explain deeper experiences involving larger samples of practitioners. The de facto superimposition of the West’s downgraded mysticism onto Indic traditions has served to marginalize Indic metaphysics, language, and contributions to post-modernism. The power regimes of Western philosophy have boycott non-Western philosophy based on this bias (while borrowing from Indian philosophy continues without due recognition).

Figure 1 illustrates how the West’s understanding of Hinduism has been impacted by such construction, sometimes known as ‘Orientalism’. Eurocentric cultural and religious categories, whose meanings reflect their Greco-Semitic origins, have been unconsciously superimposed and Hinduism has been reduced into anthropology. This is particularly problematic since a large amount of Hindu content has now become widely available to audiences without the contextual prerequisites to be able to understand it correctly.

As McGrane writes, the profession of anthropology “is an institution fundamentally involved in the reproduction of Western society.” He recommends that the West needs to self-anthropologize, both through non-Western anthropologists and by its own efforts, in order to understand itself better and also appreciate the relative nature of its categories and views. Since the West was not colonialized, it misses a neutral view of itself.

  1. Consequences of Hinduism’s portrayal in America

Media opinions in America, based on such perceptions, are at best condescending and patronizing, and at worst disparaging and hostile. Hindu kids routinely report such misleading portrayals in some schools, which impact their self-esteem and sometimes cause serious consequences. Many Hindus in America are apologetic to identify with their religion in public, and Westerners practicing Hinduism are afraid to ‘come out’ in the open. Inter-religious relationships within American communities have been hurt.

Despite claims of objectivity, bias often gets cloaked in ‘neutral’ garb. Scholars sometimes try to get away with questionable portrayals by using the excuse of diversity in Hinduism practices. This problem has two parts:

  • First, the diversity of beliefs is often portrayed as contradiction and chaos. Diversity could also be portrayed as progressive, because it is in the same spirit as scientific experimentation, openness and democracy, all of which are values cherished in the West. Highly canonized religions that are intolerant of multiple paths and based on rigid dogma could be viewed as autocratic, similar to Soviet style dictatorship, against discovery and freedom of choice. Hence, the portrayal could be drastically altered by the choice of analogies.
  • Second, the academic teaching also confuses practices that are not religion but simply happen to be done by someone who is a Hindu, or are religious but obscure and not mainstream beliefs of most predominant denominations.

Since the motive of most Americans studying about Hinduism is not to become Hindus but rather to better understand their fellow humans in business, neighborhoods, schools and the world at large, which also coincides with the mission of most teaching institutions, one should develop an effective curriculum to meet this goal. The personal or career objectives of scholars should not enter the selection of what and how to portray?

The authors must also consider how their publications get used. There do exist persons and institutions that wish to denounce and demean Hinduism, because that helps convert, build internal self-esteem for Christian identity and heritage, and increase compliance and revenue collection. But many such prejudiced agendas lack the credentials to do a credible negative campaign without academic references. So they quote from scholars, although sometimes not in the context originally intended by the scholar. The scholar would say that it’s not his/her fault if they got quoted out of context. The prejudiced person would say that it’s not their fault for projecting based on a credible writer’s work. It’s the combined effect of independent persons that results in a misleading portrayal. If certain kinds of writing are likely to get misapplied, are they considered irresponsible?

Many Hindus have veneration of their heritage without understanding. Hence, they defend against this portrayal of their tradition motivated mainly for reasons of political power or identity. Also, some Hindu activists have unclean hands, being themselves bigoted towards other religions. This has earned them a new label of ‘fundamentalism’, which is contrary to the open and tolerant spirit of Hinduism. All this has pre-empted legitimate efforts to improve the standards of teaching Hinduism, because honest sympathizers wish to distance themselves from such counter-bigotry.

While there are many sympathetic and truly balanced academicians of Hinduism, the field has often been often left to those wearing Greco-Semitic lens. Like an unauthorized biography, this cannot always be authentic. Academics do shape society long term, through their writings that are referenced by others, and such misrepresentations get magnified further downstream.

  1. Need for independent research on public attitudes and stereotypes

There has been no public research on attitudes of Americans towards Indic religions, so as to monitor how various segments of the US population perceive these religions. This should be conducted periodically to track trends, and to identify areas where misrepresentations exist. It would also serve as a barometer of progress. This research should be done by some well-known independent organization. It should uncover attitudes and levels of understanding among Americans of various income, religious affiliation, gender, age, education, occupation and geographical segments. It should identify what the key stereotypes are, what outright false ideas people have, and how these affect their attitudes towards persons from such faiths.

It would also indicate where academic and/or media approaches have failed in the past. This would then enable informed and truly ‘objective’ conclusions to be reached for the first time. So far, academicians have reached consensus based on various scholars’ official standing, credibility, popularity, scholarly record and other factors from the politics of academia. Such inbred attitudes cannot be objective, and could potentially be self- serving perpetuations of the myths of academic quality.

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