[Advaita-l] Inter Religious Dialogue - Part 1

Omkar Deshpande omkar_deshpande at yahoo.com
Sat Nov 12 23:34:31 CST 2011

Dear Sri Raghav,

 I think your mail raised some other valid issues, that I would like to briefly reply to, based on my limited experience. I have not read the book you pointed to, but I read the preface by Prof. Arvind Sharma and the cartoons. 

<<<The other side, viz, prejudiced anti-Hindu scholarship seems to be
quite widespread and has been well-documented in the interesting work
"Invading the sacred - An analysis of Hinduism studies in America" by
Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nichols and Aditi Banerjee. The
Freudian psycho-analytic evisceration of Hinduism is contrasted with
the kid-glove treatment to Islam and Christianity.>>>

I may be a little simplistic here, given my lack of familiarity with such specific controversies, but the following is how I look at this issue. 

If you look at the history of religious studies, ignoring any specifics about Hinduism or any other religion, the origin of the field lies in a break away from "insider to insider discourse" that happens within the walls of a single tradition. The writings of Fontenelle, David Hume, Auguste Comte, Marx, Freud, Emile Durkheim, and others represented a trend of hostility towards religion in general, because with the rise of modern science, many people (who were not religious) began to look to reduce religion to some naturalistic phenomenon. Some reduced religion into a sociological phenomenon, some reduced it to just an aspect of culture, some reduced it to a kind of economic system, some reduced it to just a kind of psychological feeling in the brain/mind, and so on. So there were a variety of reductionistic approaches to the study of religion that the field of religious studies was born with. In the last century or so, there has been another trend,
 against reductionism, which says that rather than reduce religion into some naturalistic phenomenon, it should be recognized that there is a sacred reality that is not amenable to being reduced into anything else, and so religious studies should develop its own methods which recognizes the reality of something sacred. This is called the phenomenological approach to religion. The reductionistic approaches, on the other hand, use methods from sociology, psychology (psychoanalysis, neuroscience, etc), economics, anthropology and so on. 

As you can guess, those who use the phenomenological approach to religion will tend to be sympathetic to it, while those who use any of the reductionistic approaches will be viewed by insiders as being hostile to religion. 

One thing to note here is that a department of religious studies at a university may have a mixture of faculty following any of these approaches. You could have a faculty who studies a religion using some kind of phenomenological approach, and you could have another faculty who uses the psychoanalytical approach. There are many other approaches as I have mentioned above, and strictly speaking, there is no strict boundary on who can utilize what approach. e.g, Someone could use a combination of different approaches to study different 'aspects' of a religion. After all, religion does have a social dimension, an economic dimension, a psychological dimension, and so on, and even if someone studies the sociology of religion, he/she may do so keeping in mind that it's only one aspect of the religion, and one can't reduce the religion to just that one aspect. 

Keeping the above in mind, let's now turn to the case of Hinduism in particular. Prof. Wendy Doniger, who uses the psychoanalytic approach appears to be very much a part of the controversy over the depiction of Hinduism in academia. I remember reading somewhere that she was brought up as an atheist, and having been one all through her life, it will naturally affect the way she views religion in general. It is doubtful that if she had been studying Buddhism or Christianity, that she would have been perceived as any less hostile by traditionalists in those religions. 

Let's now imagine a student who takes courses on all the 5 major world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) from 5 different faculty members at a university. It is possible that in the course on Islam, that particular faculty who's teaching may be following the phenomenological approach in the study of that religion, while the faculty teaching the course on Hinduism may be someone following the psychoanalytical approach. It is understandable that the student will come away with very different perceptions about Islam and Hinduism, given the difference in the approach of the two faculty. 

If this is the way undergraduates go through the study of religion at a university, I would agree that it's a problem. It is important for any student's first exposure to a religion to be sympathetic to it, because only in such a frame of mind can understanding develop, and understanding is a prerequisite for any kind of evaluation. Even if the student were to later study the same religion using some reductionistic approach, the first encounter should be one with sympathy and respect. I know many faculty members who have espoused such a view. However, in my limited experience, the courses on Hinduism that I took were all taught by people who were sympathetic to the religion as a whole, and I did not experience the kind of problems that the cartoons talked about. Such problems may exist at other universities, but I am not sure of the proportion of schools in the US which have such a problem. 

Part of the problem is also that there is a dearth of people from inside traditions who are joining the academic department of religious studies. There certainly are many examples I know, but many more may be needed. As the population of the Hindu diaspora grows, and as more traditionalists take up religious studies, some amount of balance may be restored.

<<<Its also curious that Islamic theology seems to get a better and more
understanding treatment from western religious scholars than Hinduism,
although Islam has been at loggerheads with the West. >>>

About Islam, I have noticed that too, and it may be because there is already a lot of negative sentiment among general people about Islam, and academics who go the extra mile to depict Islam in a positive way will be encouraged, to counter the prevalent sentiment for the long-term stability of a pluralistic society. Having said that, I will again quote from Mark Muesse's academic writings here to show you that it's not a universal phenomenon:

"In some respects, it is hard to imagine two religions that contrast as starkly as Hinduism and Islam. As we have seen, Hinduism embraces both polytheism and monotheism. Islam, however, is fervently and emphatically monotheistic. It has even criticized Judaism and Christianity for not being sufficiently monotheistic. Most Hindus venerate images of the divine, but Muslims abhor visual representations of God. In Islam, the greatest sin is shirk, or idolatry, and from the Muslim perspective, images are ipso facto idols. Although controversial even to Muslims, the Taliban's destruction of ancient Buddha statues in the Bamyan valley of Afghanistan in 2001 is a vivid reminder of this component of Islamic theology. When Islam began to spread during India's medieval period, its proponents often destroyed Hindu temples and temple images. Hindus accept the belief that god may incarnate in human and other forms, but Muslims categorically deny this possibility.
 Hindus think the self endures an infinite number of rebirths until it attains liberation, but Muslims believe that human beings live one life, during which their worthiness for paradise is assessed. Hindus have an ages long practice of cow reverence, honoring the animal's life-giving and life-sustaining qualities, but Muslims have no reservations about eating properly slaughtered beef. Today, most of the butchering in India is performed by Muslims. In short, the theological and religious differences between Hinduism and Islam have primed these two religions for conflict.
Historically, many scholars from outside Islam have felt compelled to provide a naturalistic explanation of Mohammad's revelations. One such theory suggests that Mohammad suffered from epilepsy, which would account for the trance-like states and occasional loss of consciousness he underwent during these moments of inspiration. Other analysts contend that he lapsed into states of greater sensitivity to the contents of his unconscious mind such as occurs during dreaming. Both hypotheses imply that the source of the revelations was none other than his own mind... Mohammad may have genuinely believed the words of revelation were from Gabriel even if they originated in his own mind. Considering the intense opposition he later faced, it is difficult to believe that Mohammad would have been willing to risk his life, and those of others close to him, for the sake of something he knew to be a sham...
Just as some have tried to discount the authenticity of Mohammad's revelations by offering a purely naturalistic explanation, others have sought to discredit them by noting their similarity to the principles and precepts of other religions. There is no doubt that many of the revelations Mohammad articulated bear strong resemblances to stories and images in the Bible. As one scholar puts it, there was "nothing new" about the revelation on the Mountain of Light, the place where Mohammad first heard the voice of Gabriel."

I am selecting certain passages from Muesse's writings here to make the point, but I should point out that Muesse is sympathetic to Islam in many ways at other places, and it's not just comments like the above selection. In effect, I quoted the above to point out that I don't find any special benefits given to Islam over Hinduism in his writings, 



More information about the Advaita-l mailing list