June 14, 2021
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Response: L'affaire Doniger

Knot So Fast

Jakob de Roover, the author of the article ‘Untangling the Knot’ maligns all contemporary South Asianist scholarship (except that of S.N. Balagangadhara) with his unsubst

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Knot So Fast

Jakob de Roover, the author of the article ‘Untangling the Knot’  makes a remarkable contribution to the ongoing debate surrounding Penguin India’s withdrawal and pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: an Alternative History. His article imagines a character—an Indian Hindu man—whose representative status is vague at best. This character encounters versions of Hinduism in his primary school that don’t address the reality of his domestic experience of it, versions that eventually fill him with self-loathing. Lacking the intellectual means with which to challenge these representations, he is frustrated and eventually joins his voice to the chorus of the Hindu Right that offers him relief if not explanations. Meanwhile, his daughter, as imagined by de Roover, chooses to study the humanities in the U.S.A and, while enrolled for a PhD in Religious Studies, is “disappointed by the shallowness of the teaching and research”. She finds that “Hinduism studies appears to be in a state of theoretical poverty”. She refuses “to take on the role of the native informant” and “begins to voice her disagreement with her teachers. This is not appreciated and she soon learns that she has been branded ‘Hindutva’.”

Nowhere in this article does de Roover offer even a single concrete demonstration of the “shallowness” or “theoretical poverty” of North American Hindu Studies. Moreover, his article rests on the unproven assumption that ethnicity is a factor—indeed the factor—determining current pedagogy in North American Hinduism Studies. On this assumption, the daughter-character necessarily perceives herself as a Hindu. Not only does this not necessarily have to be the case, it should also be obvious that there are infinite ways of being Hindu. Or Muslim. Or anything else. Moreover, de Roover imagines without justification the daughter’s teachers to be necessarily only non-native American scholars of Hinduism. These teachers supposedly cast her in the role of the native informant. Apart from the lack of any empirical evidence of this in the article, one wonders what to make of such implicitly essentialist notions of “Hindu”, “native” and “non-native”? One doesn’t have to have read the theorist of post-colonial identity, Edward Said, to expect a modicum of reflexivity in the use of such categories of identity. Nor does one have to be familiar with the English poetry (that adapted an American Modernist minimalism by discovering its elective affinities with ancient Tamil poetry) and scholarship (bringing European Folklore Studies and semiotics to bear on pre-modern Tamil and Kannada literatures) of the founder of South Asian Studies in the University of Chicago, A.K. Ramanujan, to expect a minimum of intellectual sophistication in not simplistically equating ethnicity with scholarly identity. So much for shallowness and theoretical poverty.

De Roover writes: "For decades now, secularists have set the agenda and funded research projects and centres for 'humiliation and exclusion studies'." Nowhere in his article does he specify what he understands by “secularists”, leaving one to wonder what his quarrel with secularists—whatever this label designates—may be.

Elsewhere, he charges North American scholars of religion with identifying only certain questions as “central” to scholarly inquiry into religion and then lists these questions. Again, he fails to demonstrate even one instance of the purported centrality of these questions to this group of academics. To take a random example from among many possible ones, Andrew Nicholson’s book, Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History (2010), doesn’t care to even pose the questions de Roover identifies as central. Nor does his book attempt to explain late medieval Hinduism through “Marx and Freud to Foucualt and Zizek”. Still less does it “repeat the same story, in a jargon that makes it even more opaque”. Rather, it path-breakingly demonstrates that “between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries c.e., certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophical teachings of the Upanisads, epics, Pur?nas, and the schools known retrospectively as the ‘six systems’ —saddar?ana— of mainstream Hindu philosophy”, thus disproving two theories as to the origins of what we today designate “Hinduism”—that it is as old as the Vedas, as Hindu Nationalists are wont to claim; and that its unity is merely a result of colonial period European Orientalist scholarship, as some academics argued until recently.

That we need new “hypotheses that make sense of current developments in India” can’t be denied. That there may be scholarly problems with Doniger’s book is also plausible. That we need to be more open than we have been to alternative ways of authoring textbooks is also a welcome suggestion. That banning books and the government’s surrender in the face of demands for such bans is abominable can’t be asserted enough. But I am surprised that a website as aware of contemporary scholarly currents as Outlook consented to publish an article that maligns all contemporary South Asianist scholarship (except that of S.N. Balagangadhara) with such unsubstantiated claims as the ones I have cited above.

Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University

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