Should Non-Hindus write on Hinduism?

DonigerWendy Doniger (b. 1940) is a University of Chicago Indologist who is despised by many Hindus. Her books rightfully expose the variety of Hinduisms and how many of them are intentionally sanitized versions which are very different from the earlier saucy texts like the Mahabharata and others.

In India, where presently a Hindu-centric government rules, many Indians protest non-Hindus writing about Hinduism and the government often responds by banning these books. Doniger argues well against such silly protesters in her article in The Times of India (March 15, 2015).

Believers and non-believers alike have biases. But certainly one need not be a member of a group to write incisively on that group. Believers can accurately criticize atheists, and non-Muslims can give us excellent insights into Islamic groups. But in the end, we must question insiders and outsiders alike.

I am several orders of magnitude away from being as informed on Hinduism as Doniger, but even I feel free to write on Hinduism — on a subject of which I am relatively ignorant.

Let the reader beware!

Note: Some books by Wendy Doniger

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17 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

17 responses to “Should Non-Hindus write on Hinduism?

  1. My answer to your question is an emphatic “yes”. We need alternative viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas. Too often the media and popular culture portray “the version” of Hinduism, yoga, Buddhism (to give a few cultural examples) that sell the most product, that is politically or culturally “correct”. Disregarding the unpleasant histories or critiques.

    I’m quoting the Times of India article you linked: “Yes, we have freedom of expression in our constitution, but that means freedom to a certain extent,” he said. “We should remain within certain boundaries.”

    Banning of books (ideas, expression) is suppression of free speech. Critical scholars are needed and valuable. Most don’t read them anyway. But sometimes these bans backfire and encourage more people to question and read books like this. I’ve added this book to my wishlist.

  2. I consider this a touchy subject. On the one hand, it could be argued that context changes meaning, and if one doesn’t share the context that is the framework of the meaning, then the meaning changes. Thus, those outside of any worshiping community will necessarily not “get” what it’s all about. Yet, we also know that being too close/immersed in the context doesn’t allow one to see without strongly-colored lenses.

    I personally value the outsider’s perspective. However, it’s important for both outsiders and insiders to understand that both are limited in what they can perceive. Their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. This alerts us to the need for humility.

    In many respects, I find that I am both on the outside and inside of my own tradition, which leads to certain kinds of conflicts. Even though I am an official religious figure, I identify largely as “spiritual, but not religious”. While sitting with a church-goer one day who didn’t know where I was coming from, the person told me that there wasn’t any such thing as “spiritual, but not religious”, but rather people who were either in or out. While talking with an atheist (who knows I identify as a Christian) about the Bible and how I don’t see it as a literally divinely inspired, he told me “but that’s not how Christians see it”.

    So, I encounter what I can only call “ignorance” on both the inside and the outside. Both vantage points could use a bit more listening and a little less talking. However, in the examples I just used, both had an ax to grind. And therein lies the danger. There is a difference between observation and critique, and going after an ideology for the sole purpose of undermining it. The first is good and healthy; the latter not so much.

  3. @Bo: I appreciate your accommodation of both sides of the issue. You seem objective and balanced–until your two concluding sentences, but then you write: “There is a difference between observation and critique, and going after an ideology for the sole purpose of undermining it. The first is good and healthy; the latter not so much”.

    Is it possible for anyone to have completely unbiased observation? And, why is “going after” or critiquing an ideology “not so much” good and healthy? Do you not mean that critiquing an ideology is bad and unhealthy? Your biases against critique and outside observation seem to be showing. I know I’m biased, though I try to be objective as honestly possible.

    Thanks for chiming in. I enjoyed reading your comments,

  4. @ Bo,

    I strongly agree with the benefit of an inside perspective. And as you pointed out, there are many different sorts of insiders. Some insiders want a stricter definition of believer, than others. Those who want to tell us what a real Hindu is or what a real Christian is, probably have a lot of scary stuff in common that even they can’t imagine.

    The danger of orthodoxy abound, the danger of faith that can’t be tested abound. I think these are all open to unrestrained criticism — no middle road is required for wrong claims, eh? Or at least challenging felt wrong claims.

  5. @Scott, thanks for the kind words and sharing your critical thoughts. I agree that all observation is biased. Indeed, all truth is relative. Sorry, it appears that a comma photo-bombed my sentence and may have changed how my text read. It should look more like this:

    “There is a difference between…
    (1) observation and critique and
    (2) going after an ideology for the sole purpose of undermining it.
    The first is good and healthy; the latter not so much.”

    For me, the issue is one of posture. The first posture is one of critical openness, while the latter is closed antagonism.

    Does that help clarify where I’m coming from?

    @Sabio, I’m definitely on board with certain types of “orthodoxy” being dangerous (primarily the fundamentalist kind). Overall, my personal goal is to understand it, articulate an understanding of it, show how and why it is problematic, and present an alternative. I personally think that is the best way forward, because my experience has been that luring people forward gently (okay, sometimes with a shock) is more effective than arguing.

  6. @ Bo,
    Who is your audience usually — I don’t see many comments on your blog. Is it in your personal life?

  7. @Bo, Thanks for responding to my comments. I’m not sure I follow your subtle revision. I made one word change from “undermining” to “building” to test the logic.

    “There is a difference between…
    (1) observation and critique and
    (2) going after an ideology for the sole purpose of building it.
    The first is good and healthy; the latter [not so] much.”

    Its the structure of your argument that doesn’t seem valid to me. Not your content, as you can see when we swap out and put in the opposite of undermining and not so.

    Your blog looks interesting. Describe your “ir”reverent ministry? Sounds intriguing.

  8. tolworthy

    As an ex-Mormon you can guess my opinion. I remember growing up in the 1970s, being taught that the Tanners were biased, liars, born again Christians who really did not “get it”, filled with hate, completely missing the point, breaking up families, in it for the money, yada yada yada. Well guess what, since the Internet everyone knows they were right: their history is far more accurate than the official version. Over the last year the LDS church has quietly published essays that in effect admit the Tanners were right all along. Of course they don’t put it that way, and still try to spin the information is much as possible, but the bottom line is that the church would never have admitted it if not for the research of the Tanners. They are the heroes.

    It is true that 99 percent of outsiders don’t get religion (it’s about community, not belief), but the 1 percent who “get it” have such a superior vantage point that they are generations ahead of insiders.

  9. tolworthy

    Sorry, I should have explained: Jerald and Sandra Tanner ran the Utah Lighthouse Minstry and since the 1960s have worked tirelessly from their home to provide original photocopies and microfilm of old LDS church books, at pretty close to cost. An amazing couple.

  10. @tolworthy: Interesting backstory about the Tanners. Thanks for sharing.

    I don’t understand your claims: “It is true that 99 percent of outsiders don’t get religion (it’s about community, not belief), but the 1 percent who “get it” have such a superior vantage point that they are generations ahead of insiders”.

    Are you arguing for insiders, who become “outsiders” as arbiters of “truth” within religion?

    I wonder where you came up with your figures and conclusion? Personal anecdotes? Or, sociological research data? References would be helpful if any.
    thanks

  11. @tolworthy,
    I agree that community is a huge part of what insiders REALLY value and that doctrine is largely secondary for most — and that outside critical people are often not seeing this.

  12. tolworthy

    @Scott – thanks for the reply. My views are purely anecdotal. I don’t think anybody should be an arbiter of truth, but I’m still smarting from spending thirty years defending something that was obviously wrong, and it was so obvious from outside.

    I want to stress that I only have a problem with the idea of “follow the prophet”. Other approaches to Mormonism intrigue me, and I still see myself as Mormon: just not i the mainstream LDS mode. More in the David Whitmer mold: he was there at the start, and was inspired by Joseph Smith’s early egalitarianism and utopianism. But power corrupts and soon the leaders only seemed interested in being obeyed. I think that welcoming outsiders’ views is the best way to avoid that destructive pride.

    For me, religion is at its strongest hen it has to answer the hardest questions. I love theology, I love idealism, I find the ideas of Jesus (as I understand them) excite me. I think a non-supernatural approach is far stronger than people realise. But I don’t like the way that churches can so easily turn inward and become more interested in their own preservation and their own back-slapping glory than any higher ideal. Religions need critics. If religions do their job right the can easily rise above it, but if they turn inward they deserve all the scorn they get. In my opinion.

  13. @tolworthy: Thanks for your responses. Refreshing to hear that you are able to identify with being a Mormon while you question it at same time.

  14. Hey all, sorry, but I somehow missed the replies to me. My bad. I hope my responses aren’t too late.

    @Sabio, I admit I don’t have much of an audience. Rarely do I receive comments on my blog. I admit, though, that fewer comments are not such a bad thing for me, since I don’t have tons of time for blogging and replying. Nonetheless, I enjoy blogging, and will continue to do it with or without replies. Something I’ve been toying with is moving more into video. Thank you for asking.

    @Scott, I think I may be missing your point somewhere, and I apologize for not keeping up. The best response I have to your question may be to say that I think it is healthy to keep an open, yet critical mind. And when people attack something without listening to it first (and by “listening” I mean seeking to understand), then they’ve moved into an unhealthy posture. Perhaps it might help to clarify that having keeping an “open, yet critical mind” does not mean that agreement will result.

    Oh, and regarding my “irreverant” ministry. I am strongly influenced by deconstructionist thought, and as a result come from a revisionist and/or radical perspective. Therefore, I am less concerned about the past (tradition), and more concerned about where we are (current context, which I identify as “postmodern”) and where we could be going (vision for the future).

    Again, all, I apologize for the delayed responses.

  15. @tolworthy
    >>For me, religion is at its strongest hen it has to answer the hardest questions. I love theology, I love idealism, I find the ideas of Jesus (as I understand them) excite me. I think a non-supernatural approach is far stronger than people realise.<<

    Well said! 🙂

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