Rajiv Malhotra’s attackers must stop playing dangerous childish games and engage his ideas seriously
Recently, Indian-American author and historian, Mr. Rajiv Malhotra, has been charged with allegations of plagiarism of some passages in his book Indra’s Net. He is charged with having used certain small passages from Nicholson’s book “Unifying Hinduism” without proper attribution. This lack of attribution has been rightly argued to be a simple oversight, since Nicholson’s book is referenced 30 other times in the book, and only in about 6 cases were the attributions missing. The allegations were first made by Richard Fox Young, a teacher at a seminary in Princeton New Jersey, and there have been responses to this by Mr. Malhotra here, a response by Nicholson and his publisher here, and another response by Malhotra here.
If this were simply a case of technical omissions of quotes in half-a-dozen places, it could have been fixed via errata as is usually the case. But Malhotra’s critics are gunning for much more. They want the book to be withdrawn and pulped. The singular, obsessive manner in which the seminarian Fox Young has trolled Malhotra’s twitter timeline can only be deemed as a certain type of mental illness, and grounds for a restraining order in other circumstances. A cursory look at Fox’s twitter timeline will demonstrate that he has spent every day issuing admonitions to Malhotra for at least the past 18 months, despite being blocked by Malhotra. Hence, this is no academic spat on technicalities that could be sorted out without much drama, especially since it is apparent that there was no willful attempt at deceit on Malhotra’s part as he has referred to the same work 30 times throughout the book. Normal people would not be singularly obsessed with someone and stalk them day and night for more than a year and a half.
So why is there this level of animus? For those who are becoming aware of this brouhaha only now, a little history is in order as to why this acrimony is taking place.
I came to know of Malhotra’s work more than 13 years ago when he wrote a set of ground breaking articles in Sulekha on the western cartel’s control of Hinduism studies. At about the same time, a controversy had erupted when it was discovered that Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia’s entry on Hinduism was authored by Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. Doniger’s area of research into Hinduism is notable for its use of Freudian psychoanalysis techniques into some of Hinduism’s most sacred theologies. Much of this psychoanalysis uses sexual and erotic interpretations that are offensive to practicing Hindus who do not perceive their worship of Hindu iconography or interpret their mythologies in that manner at all. Interestingly, Doniger holds the “Mircea Eliade” chair in history of religions at the University of Chicago; Mircea Eliade is notable for lying about having had a sexual relationship with his Guru’s daughter Maitreyi while he was in India and having written a sensational novel on it that catapulted him to fame.
What was problematic was not Doniger’s use of these strange techniques to analyze Hinduism; this is her freedom to think and publish as she pleases, but that she was considered the authority on it to write elementary introductions to Hinduism in popular encyclopedias and textbooks. This pointed to a substantial problem in the West that the authority figures on Hinduism were not practicing Hindu experts from within the mainline of their traditions, as is the case for Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Buddhism, but obscure academics outside of the faith and tradition with controversial interpretations, theories, and no particular sympathy for Hindu traditions. Malhotra, and another Indian American Sankrant Sanu, were instrumental in getting Microsoft to delete the controversial entry by Doniger on Hinduism in the encyclopedia and use a mainstream Hindu practitioner to write it instead.
From those days, Malhotra’s central thesis has been to argue for the need for balance in scholarship on Hinduism in the western academy. He has painstakingly cataloged the degree to which the western academy is dominated by left-wing culturally Marxist interpretations who maintain a cartel-like monopoly and shut out alternative viewpoints. While the dominance of Marxist historians in the Indian academy is well known, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the western academy in Indology is also thus dominated by Marxists. This is not merely an allegation, since many of the academics themselves identify as such, including Sheldon Pollock, and Jesse Knutson, the author of the change.org petition that seeks to have Malhotra’s book withdrawn. Knutson’s Marxist leanings and sympathies should be clear based on this countercurrents article he wrote advising the Government of India to surrender to the Naxalites, and let them create an independent Maoist state in central India. Doniger’s own use of Freudian psychoanalysis is in keeping with principles established by the so called Frankfurt school of Adorno, based on the ideas of Gramsci and Lukacs, that has been highly influential in academic circles. The leftist historian at Columbia, Christopher Lasch, remarked on the “Authoritarian Personality”, a book by Adorno et. al., that (as stated by Slavoj Zizek)
“The Authoritarian Personality leads to the conclusion that prejudice “could be eradicated only by subjecting the American people to what amounted to collective psychotherapy — by treating them as inmates of an insane asylum.”
The Frankfurt school’s use of psychoanalysis was a reaction to western fascism, particularly of the Nazi variety in Germany, and the idea was to analyze western society itself and show that it was fundamentally sick to the core and in need of reform. Thus it is not surprising that Marxists in the Indian context would want to use such techniques to show Hindu society as fundamentally ill at its core and in need for reform, reform that will come eventually and presumably from a top down implementation of Marxist organization and principles.
Not surprisingly, Doniger and her ilk’s greatest defenders in India are to be found among the Indian Marxists, who comprise and dominate the left in Indian letters. However, it is not only the leftists who are interested in Marxist interpretations of Hinduism. It is also of interest to the Christian right in the US who see India as one of the “unreached” frontiers. The Christian right in the US, it should be noted, are ideologically at the opposite end of the political spectrum to the so-called “progressive left”. The Christian right is generally known for beliefs such as the earth being 6000 years old, denial of evolution, violence against abortion clinics, a rabid opposition to gay rights, and a belief in the Bible as the literal word of God. However, a Marxist led attack and subversion of Hinduism, its sacredly held ideas and iconography, is useful for western evangelists who can capitalize on it to harvest souls, since Christianity’s own attempts to proselytize to the Hindu masses have historically met with little success. The Marxist assault on Hindu society on a psychological level, combined with its theories of class and caste struggle that demonizes the practice of Hinduism, indeed even the use of Sanskrit itself, as an upper caste oppression that results in endemic poverty, is thought to be a good way to separate Hindus from Hinduism. On the coattails of this revolution would Christian missionaries be able to get at least some of the spoils.
Mr. Malhotra’s work aims to highlight these issues so that Hindus are aware of them. He has never said that such ideas should not be pursued or expressed, merely that there needs to be a balance if one is genuinely interested in the marketplace of ideas as one would expect in free societies such as the US or India. Malhotra also highlights how the western academy, by its very nature, excludes 99% of the Hindu practitioners as it has no use for traditional Indian definitions of scholars; they need to be English speaking, and trained in a western-style university system with western-style degrees and certificates. If Adi Sankara were to reincarnate, he would not get a faculty position at a western university as he would not possess a Ph.D from an accredited institution!
Indeed, the western Indologists who go to India and learn at the feet of pandits and other keepers of tradition should be rightly seen as “interns” in corporations. It is generally the practice that such internships that result in papers carry co-authorship with their hosts, sponsors, and professors in the corporation or labs where the intern performed his or her work. However, these western indologist interns never co-author any of their papers or books with the pandits who, for all intents and purposes, should be on par with their professors. Instead, we get no glimpse into the “native informant” process, but only conversations among western academics who cite and reference each other, and discuss Indian history and culture as if it were some sort of “found object”.
This need not be a conspiracy; the system is architected in a way that it becomes exclusionary when it comes to the study of ancient traditions and religions. One would think that genuine progressives and liberals (western Indologists and their Indian supporters certainly claim to be liberal and progressive) would want to engage with these critiques, as other liberals and progressives frequently do in other contexts such as charges that university entrance exams such as the SAT are biased against minorities, or that STEM fields are hostile to women and people of color, or that certain works of art can be “triggers” for abuse victims and must be proscribed. You would think that genuine liberals and progressives would be interested in allowing “othered” groups to have their own voice and take control of their own destinies, as they purport to in other domains (such as civil rights). But in this case, these critiques have been met with collective name calling and demonization of Malhotra, and people generally in agreement with him, as Hindutva bigots.
In fact, the western Indologist Marxist view of Hinduism and Indian history is not interested in facts or truths. For instance, informal debates on the Indology mailing list, show that many scholars in this field would rather dismiss an idea simply because it could be used by “right wing Hindutva nationalists”. This reaction, is for instance, to the “out of India” theory for the spread of Indo-European languages, with Sanskrit as the original IE language. Rather than looking at the merits of the idea, as scientists would, many in western Indology would not take the idea seriously at all simply because of its potential for “abuse” by Hindutvadins. So rather than the historical facts and truths, these academics are concerned with law and order. While their worry about law and order in India is charming, perhaps they should first quit the academy and join the police force in the US and shoot a few innocent white people just to balance things out. Charity should, after all, begin at home.
In another instance, Stella Sandahl, a Sanskrit professor at the University of Toronto, has this reaction to the idea of making Sanskrit a popular spoken language:
“ It is very sad to see how the ignorant Hindutva forces demean and make the wonderful classical language into something trivial and ridiculous. How do we stop them? How can we rescue Sanskrit from these vandals?
I doubt that the sevaphalAni-eating student in his mahala can read and understand even one line by Kalidasa or Bana or Jayadeva. But he can cut the throat of those who cannot speak his so called Sanskrit. When he is not busy demolishing mosques and raping nuns.” — Stella Sandahl, Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Notice how she links the very attempt to revitalize Sanskrit to Hindutva without a shred of evidence, as well as making the egregious assertions about imagined violence. This is merely a small example of the extraordinary sense of entitlement and ownership (“how do we rescue”) that western Indologists already nurse regarding Sanskrit and Hinduism that comes across even in these casual interactions.
These examples are provided merely to illustrate that Malhotra’s detractors are not interested in debate and the free exchange of ideas. They find him dangerous precisely because he challenges their hegemony and group think on Hinduism and India studies. And because they are willing to reject any idea that could potentially be used to further a “Hindutva agenda”, Malhotra is dismissed by associating him with Hindutva, regardless of what he is actually saying. Hence, the accusations of plagiarism are intended to discredit and silence him, rather than engage with his fundamental thesis of exclusion of traditional views of Hinduism in the academy.
Of-course, it can be pointed out that Malhotra’s critics are not all western academics of non-Indian backgrounds. There are plenty of Indians as well. The west has moved on from its previous Hitlerian view of white supremacy to a Spenglerian view of western supremacy. So while in the past one had to have white skin to be allowed to sit at the table, today you can sit at the table provided you conform to western norms and expectations. So Indians who hew to the western dogma will be allowed in, but those who question the fundamental premises will be shunned, sidelined, and condemned with trenchant criticism.
It is ironic that until now, the excuse for not engaging with his critiques has been the sneer that he is not an academic with formal training in Sanskrit, and yet, he is being asked to adhere to an exacting academic standard for quotations in his books! Even more ironic are the pretentious leftist Marxist exertions of “scientific temper” and “rational approaches” for “combating superstition”, and yet, contemptuous dismissals of Malhotra and his supporters as being engineers and scientists with no training in the humanities! Given that Malhotra’s background is in Physics and Computer Science, arguably among the most hardcore of the scientific fields, you would think that such persons are even more eminently qualified in “scientific temper” and “rational approaches”.
In any case, Malhotra has argued that he is no longer as interested in being given credence by the academy, as he is in alerting the original sources of such scholarship in India to be wary of western Indologists, to perform their own due diligence of what western intentions are. This perhaps frightens them the most. A generally hostile Indian reception to them would signal an end to traditional fawning hospitality and uncritical, unquestioning acceptance they have become rather used to.
This calculated assault on Malhotra’s books, that have been out for many years now, comes on the threshold of another book on Sanskrit he is scheduled to release. Unsurprisingly, his detractors want to silence him and dent his ability to get new ideas on appropriations and intellectual theft of Indian classics across. For all Indians interested in a balanced, truth-finding scholarship about their history, it is imperative that they support voices like Rajiv Malhotra against his agenda driven detractors who have a deep-seated Hinduphobia, and ill intentions towards Indian civilization in general.
Follow me on twitter: Ramkumar1133
Courtesy "Indrasnet Hindoo"