OPEN Magazine: Saving History from Historians

Washington, DC (July 24, 2015) - The following article by HAF Director of Education, Murali Balaji, Ph.D., appeared on OPEN Magazine.  Please post comments directly on by clicking here.

Next year will mark the 50th death anniversary of one of the most influential scholars of Hindu studies. But his immortality is one of the driving forces of the perplexing state of academic discourse on Hinduism within India and in the West. This giant of Hindu studies wasn’t a theologian or even a practitioner scholar steeped in the expanse of philosophies and praxis that falls under Hinduism. Indeed, Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907-1966) , better known as DD Kosambi, was a Marxist historian, and both he and his intellectual scions profoundly shaped the narrative as well as the terms of discourse on Hinduism.

Kosambi’s influence on the study of Hinduism and, to a larger degree, Indian history is so visible that it approaches the sublime in contemporary Indian and South Asian intellectual discourse. It is worth noting, however, that Kosambi probably did not intend to gain such an exalted status within the field of Hindu studies, given that his focus was on critiquing the social and economic disparities of the nascent Indian state—and his relentless intellectual criticism of and activism against Nehruvian socialism.

However, for years, the terms of discourse have focused on how contemporary understandings of Hinduism were—and continue to be—influenced by colonial and Orientalist frameworks, and the outsized role that both Christian missionary scholarship and German Indology have played in cultivating such understandings. Many Hindu activists have even claimed that the current state of Hindu scholarship—and the ideological stigma attached to the word ‘Hindu’—has been manufactured by a nefarious cabal of Christian missionaries, Islamists and Marxists. While such claims are often grossly overstated or simply made up, it’s important to understand the impact of Kosambi’s scholarship and the lineage of his work on how Hinduism is viewed within academia.

For starters, Kosambi was influenced by two types of German intellectual approaches: traditional Marxism and German Indology, which—despite being different and opposing approaches—were oddly connected. The Marxist paradigm relied not only on historicisation, but a thorough examination of how everyday life became materialised. While Marx’s thesis on power and labour highlighted the fundamental shift in European society due to industrialisation, and a widening difference in the material conditions of owners and workers, it was predicated upon adopting GW Hegel’s philosophy and advancing the notion of ‘dialectical materialism’—that events, be they historical or political, result from a conflict between social forces. Hegel is an important figure here in shaping both Marxist thought and German Indology. He not only influenced Marx and Friedrich Engels (who were once part of a group known as the Young Hegelians), but his dismissal of Indian (Hindu) philosophy—which he famously claimed was nothing more than stories of ‘plants and animals’—shaped 19th and 20th century German Indologists, who in turn had a direct impact on many prominent scholars of Indian religious traditions.

German Indology migrated to other parts of the West, and by the early 1900s, it had become a powerful paradigm through which European scholars came to understand Indic spiritual and religious traditions. Kosambi’s work on Buddhism while at Harvard shaped him profoundly, as he was learning what was considered the popular consensus at the time: Buddhist thought provided order to an unwieldy, inegalitarian way of life known as Brahminism, and its legacy in India was wiped out by Brahmins seeking to reclaim control over Indian society. It should be noted that such claims, while debunked, are still present in many Western textbooks.

Kosambi and his Indian counterparts also digested ideas about an Aryan invasion—the supposed conquest of the Indian Subcontinent by light-skinned European invaders who subsequently subordinated darker indigenous populations. While Indian intellectuals such as BR Ambedkar passionately argued against the idea that an Aryan invasion ever took place, it was almost universally accepted as fact within India and the West for most of the 20th century—until later genealogical, archaeological and textual evidence refuted and dispelled the theory.

However, Kosambi’s work on caste and power, as well as his attention to applying Marxist historical method to Indian cultural, social and religious history, was dynamic and groundbreaking. His scholarship, notably An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, was so comprehensive for its time that few historians could come close to matching its expanse. Kosambi attempted to break away from Orientalist and Eurocentric paradigms of Indian history, which he believed did not pay attention to the experiences of those who lived during specific time periods. He provided a historiography of caste (though without much context or important distinctions between concepts such as varnas and jatis) that influenced both Indian and Western scholarship on Indian history. It would be overly simplistic to call his analysis ‘anti-Brahmin’, but some of his work certainly reincarnated some of the German Indologists’ assumptions about Brahmin privilege and political dominance in ancient India.

Countering a long tradition of Eurocentric, Christianised, racialised scholarship on India, Kosambi injected a much needed Marxist historical lens to take previously abstract (and romanticised) ideas of Indian history and bring them into a realm both tangible and accessible. But in doing so, he emphasised an approach that served to define Hinduism without appreciating the processes by which Hindu philosophy and traditions were learned and transmitted for thousands of years.

Indeed, many of the scholars Kosambi influenced—including Romila Thapar—were or are prominent historians, but their works, particularly in understanding the philosophical development of Hinduism and the social evolution of Hindu society, failed or fails to grasp the meaning behind many of the texts they studied. In other words, their readings of the Rig Veda or Mahabharata were textual, but often superficial. As most Vedic scholars argue, the process by which one understands Hindu texts involves multiple steps, including the actual hearing of the text and years of understanding how the text connects to a larger philosophy and practice. Without that full understanding, both meaning and context are lost. It can make a tradition as diverse as Hinduism seem contradictory, archaic, and—from a Marxist perspective—oppressive.

Scholars like Thapar have produced major works tracing much of India’s social and cultural development, but they also relied on the literal meanings of texts (or often relied on second- hand interpretations). More contemporary Marxist approaches to Hinduism look for the hidden meanings of texts (the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, as Adluri and Bagchee call it)— particularly their agendas of oppression and religiously sanctioned hierarchy—without actually knowing the surface meaning of the texts. Or, in some cases, they simply eschew the scriptural basis and claim Indian social practices that developed over hundreds and thousands of years as the gist of Hindu ethos.

The Marxist narrative on Hinduism is largely based on what they see as Hindu (that is, Brahmin) oppression of the Indian subaltern, and on understandings in which such practices were justified and sanctified by Hindu scriptures. They also continue to rely upon a reading of Indian society as an essentialised Hindu versus non-Hindu or ‘high-caste’ versus ‘low-caste’ dichotomy (or of caste as solely a Hindu issue), playing up the idea that India is beholden to unshakeable Hindu and Brahmin hegemonies. Of course, the rise of right-wing political movements within India that rely on Hindu iconography (commonly labelled as ‘Hindutva’), as well as the refusal by some Hindus to acknowledge casteism and caste discrimination, has only aided their claims.

The problem with such an argument is that Indian Marxists have long assumed hegemony to be static and essentialised. Antonio Gramsci, who originated the term, never presumed that to be the case, and in a critique of traditional Marxism, he argued that hegemony was never absolute nor limited to one overarching power narrative. To assume Hindu hegemony in the way that Indian Marxist scholarship assumes would be to argue that Hindus somehow wield power and privilege even in parts of India where they are marginalised and routinely oppressed, including Kashmir, Nagaland and Meghalaya. That assumption ignores the fluidity of hegemony’s manifestations.

Beyond the flaw in how they read Gramsci, Indian Marxist frameworks over-rely on neo-Marxist ideas of false consciousness and the formation of permanently oppressed classes. Through this narrative, Muslims, Christians, Naxals, Adivasis, Scheduled Castes and women are constantly being held in a subaltern state by the invisible power of a coordinated Hindu elite. To go further, from a Marxist perspective, even identifying as a Hindu is tantamount to endorsing a Hindu extremist political agenda, which is about as ridiculous as claiming that identifying as a Muslim makes one an Islamist. Renowned British cultural studies scholar Paul Gilroy, borrowing largely from the late Stuart Hall, argued nearly 20 years ago that creating such sweeping classifications makes for poor scholarship and even poorer activism.

Marxism has played a significant role in Hindu studies today, shaping many Indian scholars whose works frequently conflate Indian nationalism with Hindutva and many of their Western counterparts whose works admire Hindu philosophy in the abstract but criticise Hinduism in practice. It has migrated with Indian born scholars whose work on the Indian/South Asian Diaspora is largely focused on a critique of Hindu diasporic identity formation, and whose works attempt to re-create the idea of Hindu hegemony in countries where Hindus are heterogenous, routinely marginalised and racialised as an ‘Other’. A number of these scholars, including Vijay Prashad, Sunaina Maira and Prema Kurien, have made important contributions to South Asian studies in America, but their analyses—particularly about Hinduism or the Hindu Diaspora—are often skewed by their desire to create a Hindu/Hindutva bogeyman seeking to oppress and absorb non-Hindu Indians into a homogenised Indian Diasporic identity. Moreover, their sustained criticisms of and attacks on Hindu organisations—representing the expanse of cultures, ideologies, and philosophical outlooks on Hinduism— in the West has undermined their ability to actually engage Hindus on issues of social justice (when, ironically, Hindus in the Diaspora tend to be more socially and politically liberal).

Marxist-inspired lenses of privileges and power figure prominently in many works about Hinduism, whether in analyses of scriptural meanings or of inequalities within Hindu society. This isn’t to say that these issues cannot be analysed. However, Marxism exists as a system of critique, and from an activist’s standpoint, a basis for social reform. In almost every other religious tradition, Marxist critiques are a compelling counterweight to religious theological discourse and the often unquestioned power of religious institutions. Religious studies of Islam, Christianity and Judaism are flush with examples of Marxist critiques, which in turn cultivate scholarly responses from trained theologians in those faiths.

However, in the study of Hinduism, the critique is the narrative. There is no alternate history or even a robust theology in academia, either within India or the West. While there are attempts underway—led by renowned Hindu scholar Rita Sherma—in the US to develop a Hindu theological approach within the academic sphere, those efforts will take years to become a force in shaping a constructive Hindu narrative. Sadly, it will take much longer in India, owing to the dominance of Marxist intellectuals in universities (which Ramachandra Guha detailed in an essay last year) and a general lack of interest by most Indian academics to pursue a robust Hindu theological scholarly agenda. As Open’s Editor S Prasannarajan wrote recently (‘Wrongs of the Right’, 20 July 2015), it also doesn’t help that the Indian right doesn’t seem interested in advancing vetted scholarship, choosing instead to promote ill-qualified political patrons to head influential humanities and cultural bodies.

The absence of a Hindu theology is why specialised Indologists such as Wendy Doniger, whose hermeneutical approach to Hindu texts is a tiny sliver of the expanse of scholarly approaches to Hinduism, have helped propagate the power/ privilege/hegemony paradigm that has served to present Hinduism within academia (and in textbooks) as a regressive, casteist and patriarchal way of life. While she claims to ‘defend’ Hinduism from ‘Hindutvadis’, Doniger and other Indologists— following the same path of their German predecessors from over a century ago by eschewing Indian readings of Hindu texts and claiming to know their hidden meanings—have tried to re-create a Hinduism they see as authentic, and in doing so, have only entrenched long-held misconceptions about Hindu philosophy’s application to daily practice.

Again, the pervasiveness of this particular approach goes back to Kosambi’s legacy and how his approach to Marxism evolved into a theological framework by which to study Hinduism and Hindu practice. Even as Buddhist, Jain and Sikh studies flourish in the West, Hinduism suffers from a lack of a critical mass of scholars whose work can bridge the philosophical and practical realities of a heterogenous global population of 1 billion people. That void instead has been filled with internet warriors with often far-flung and nonsensical claims, including those who have convinced themselves (and their followers) of the existence of a mythical Hindu civilisation that has remained unchanged for tens of thousands of years.

For scholars who are serious about building a constructive narrative on Hinduism, they will likely need to do more to appreciate the religion’s global diversity. Explaining Balinese, Vietnamese Cham, or South African Hindu practice, or how the Ramcharitmanas fuelled the spiritual resilience of Caribbean Hindus during their period of indenture, are vital to appreciating just how much Hinduism has evolved. It might also take a renewed interest among academics to understand and appreciate how Hindu texts and philosophy have been transmitted for thousands of years, and why those processes have helped to uphold Hindu praxis across the globe for generations.

In acknowledging Kosambi’s imprint on Hindu studies and the dominance of the Marxist paradigm, perhaps it’s also important to ask whether such a framework—devoid of healthy debate—has become stagnant, repetitive and shrill. Perhaps this is why Marxist scholars should root for robust discourse and the development of a new generation of constructive Hindu academics. It would truly allow for the actual spirit of critique to be realised and put on notice the monopoly of groupthink that’s now the standard for analysing Hinduism.

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