Wednesday, March 05, 2014

More clarity from Jakob de Roover

In Outlook India.
The major obstacle here is what I called ‘the theoretical poverty of the study of Hinduism’. Why do I speak of theoretical poverty? Consider some counter-questions: What makes the Hindu traditions into religion, that is, into manifestations of the same kind of phenomenon as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism? How does one test the presence of religion in some culture or society without presupposing it? Does it make sense to say that purohits are priests, puja is worship, that devas are gods, or that Manusmriti is sacred law? Is the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India a religious conflict or not? Which criteria allow one to distinguish between a conflict that is religious and one that is not?

These and many similar questions remain unanswered in the academic study of Hinduism. They are consistently misunderstood as questions of defining ‘words’, as though the presence of religion in some culture depends on how we decide to define the word ‘religion’. (If it really did, we could just define ‘religion’ as ‘that which is present in all cultures’ and the problem would go away. But it hasn’t.)
All of this points to fundamental flaws at the heart of a field of study. Scholars have been studying Hindu religion for centuries now. If it turns out that this entity is imaginary, the resulting tomes are about as useful as detailed studies of the unicorn and the leprechaun. Of course, this does not mean that Hindu traditions and practices are imaginary. It means that they have been thoroughly and fundamentally misunderstood precisely because they are conceptualized in terms of religion.

English terms like ‘religion’, ‘priest’, ‘god’, and ‘worship’ are more complex than words like ‘rain’, ‘sunshine’, or ‘darkness’. They are theoretical terms embedded in a specific way of understanding the world. That is, there is conceptual framework where such terms had a clear meaning and reference: generic Christian theology. And this is where the rub lies: once you draw on concepts inherited from centuries of Christian thinking in order to make sense of a culture, you inevitably end up with standard implications of this framework. In the case of India, the central implication is that an implicit notion of ‘false religion’ continues to structure the dominant understanding of the Hindu traditions as' Hinduism’ and ‘the caste system’. If that is the case, even scholars who ‘genuinely love Indian culture’ will end up producing deeply problematic descriptions, albeit in unconscious and unwanted ways.