Skip directly to content

Hindus, scholars and Hindu scholars: Who speaks for Hinduism?

Mr Ravi Gupta, OCHS
Mr Ravi Gupta

A speech by Dr Ravi Gupta, Board of Governor's Dinner, Oxford Town Hall, 23rd June 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening! It is a great pleasure to be present in such a distinguished gathering of individuals. This is a homecoming of sorts for me—I studied at Oxford for six years and then went off into the real world, as they say. Now, after a year of full time teaching at the University of Florida, it is great to be back with friends at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.
 My first year teaching in the United States brought many surprises, but one of the most interesting was the experience of teaching young Hindus about Hinduism. When I walked into class on the first day, I was surprised to find that nearly one third of my class were second generation Hindus—children of Indian immigrants who have lived their lives so far in the United States. Now they were sitting in class at the University of Florida hoping to learn more about a religious heritage which they claim as their own but perhaps are not entirely comfortable with.
This makes for an interesting dynamic in class: for these students, the classroom is much more than a place to gain information about foreign religions and distant lands. It is a part of their search for identity, a study of something that is close to home and yet far away at the same time. Their presence is of course very enriching for the rest of the class, for it helps the American students to understand that Hinduism is not simply an exotic, mystical religion of snake charmers and naked yogis but a tradition that is lived and practiced by normal people with day-to-day concerns much like their own. When the American students hear one of their classmates say, “Yes, my mother fasts on Mondays and my father eats only once on Tuesdays . . .” that does more to bring Hinduism home than any amount of lecturing can do. It adds experience to the textbook.
The Hindu students, on the other hand, have firsthand experience of the subject matter, but they need a way to make sense of that experience. They sometimes come to me after class and say, “I thought what we did at home was it—that was Hinduism. But now I see that there is a whole world of philosophy and ritual out there.” In the classroom, these students find themselves in a challenging and sometimes awkward position—they are seen by their classmates as representatives of a tradition that they know very little about.
The situation becomes even more interesting by the fact that their professor is also a second generation Hindu born and bred in the United States. This means that my role is much more than that of an academic instructor. Of course, everyone expects academic integrity and objectivity. But besides conveying information about Hinduism, the students also hope I will interpret the tradition for them—“Can you tell me what it means to be a Hindu in the West?” “Am I a good Hindu, even though I don’t want an arranged marriage?” “Can you explain the caste system to my friends?” They hope I will stand up for our religion, defend it, and make it look reasonable in front of their classmates.
This classroom dynamic is played out repeatedly in universities across the United States and Britain. Usually, the professor is not Hindu himself, complicating the situation even further—Hindu students seeking knowledge and guidance from teachers who are not Hindus themselves, but clearly know far more about the tradition than they do. All this raises a pressing question: who speaks for Hinduism? Who represents Hinduism? Is it those who come from Hindu backgrounds, even if they know little of the history and diversity of their tradition? Or is it scholars of Hinduism, who may not practice the tradition but have spent their lives studying it? Throughout the western world, both scholars and practitioners are asking themselves this question—who speaks for Hinduism?
The question was not always this complicated. There was a time when Hindus kept to themselves, happy to stay in India and do what Hindus do. Outsiders were “unclean” foreigners, who clearly had little understanding of the beauty and sophistication of their traditions.
Similarly, western scholars also kept to themselves, happy to theorize about the origin and development of Hinduism from an outsider’s perspective. Max Muller, the Oxford scholar helped found Indian studies in the West, never saw the need to visit India. More recently, a well-known European scholar studied Sanskrit his entire life before finally deciding to go to India. It is said that he was disappointed and disillusioned, for India on the ground did not live up to the India of literature.
But those days are now gone. An American or British Ph.D. student of Hinduism can hardly expect to get his or her degree without traveling to India at least once. Scholars spend extended periods of time living on the subcontinent and becoming fluent in local languages. Similarly, Hindus now find themselves living in every part of the world, mixing with the people and cultures of those regions. This has led to cultural adaptations and compromises that might have surprised or even shocked earlier generations but are commonplace today. With many Westerners becoming Hindus, and Hindus becoming more Western, the question “who speaks for Hinduism,” becomes more difficult and more urgent than ever before. An American professor once described how he is sometimes approached by his Indian students after class, “Do you think we are good Hindus? What do we have to believe in to be Hindus? What is the essence of Hinduism?” His reaction is initially one of panic. Help! This is not part of my job description! It is not my job to evaluate my students’ faith! But job descriptions mean little in today’s globalized world. Any professor, Indian or Western, possesses knowledge, and with knowledge comes the responsibility to ensure its proper application.
Usually, the relationship between practitioners and scholars of Hinduism is friendly and harmonious. Scholars deeply appreciate the tradition they study and often become personally involved in its preservation and dissemination. Similarly, Hindus are generally grateful for the work scholars put into understanding, interpreting, and teaching their traditions.
Sometimes, however, the relationship becomes strained, and each side becomes suspicious of the others’ motivations. Such was the case in the recent California textbook controversy. Several Hindu organizations in the United States objected to what they felt was a distorted and unbalanced picture of Hinduism found in sixth grade textbooks. The resulting debate swept up both Hindus and scholars of Hinduism from around the United States. What constitutes distortion, and what is simply fact? To what extent does a textbook about religion need to conform to practitioners’ self-understanding? What aspects of a religious tradition do 11-year olds need to know? Lawsuits were filed, and accusations became heated. Some scholars firmly opposed the changes proposed by the Hindu organizations, while others lent a quiet nod of approval. The debate was observed carefully by educators across the country—because California possesses one of the largest school systems in the nation, other states often follow its norms.
One thing that became clear, however, was that both sides were largely speaking past each other. Members of the Hindu community had valid points of contention, and had reason to complain about the hard-nosed approach of some scholars. But the community had little idea of how to voice their objections in a way that would stand up to academic scrutiny, using mainstream academic sources. This is because few representatives of the Hindu community are trained in the academic study of religion or have an understanding of the ethos and principles upon which it operates. At the same time, some of the scholars who opposed the changes lacked sensitivity to the concerns of practitioners and an understanding of how academic ideas can sometime perpetuate fictitious impressions. Throughout the controversy, our question became ever more pressing: who speaks for Hinduism?
Clearly, both the practitioner’s and the scholar’s perspectives are useful for understanding a religious tradition.  In fact, I would argue that both perspectives are necessary for gaining a well-rounded understanding. Let me give you an example. Suppose you are presented with a well-decorated cake. There are two ways of understanding the gift you have received: one is to find out everything you can about the cake—who made it, what ingredients went into it, what theme was used to decorate it, how much it cost, how it was brought here, and so on. The other is simply to cut a slice and eat it.
Both methods of understanding the cake are useful and necessary. Tasting the cake provides a direct experience that no amount of description or analysis can provide. At the same time, while experiencing the wonderful flavor, a person may become oblivious to questions of context and history. This requires some distance from the object itself, and academic study can provide that dispassionate distance.
What is required is a dialogue of the two perspectives, a meeting of the practitioner and the scholar. If each were to confer with the other, and pay attention to each other’s insights, we could approach a fuller understanding of the subject matter. This is a challenge, for each side is naturally suspicious of the other. For the practitioner, the academic approach is dry, tasteless, and boring. What does a man who has never tasted a piece of cake know of its contents? For a scholar, the practitioner’s perspective is hopelessly biased and lacking in context. What can a person who is busy licking the plate clean tell me about cake-making? Dispelling these suspicions and initiating dialogue is a challenging task by any standard, but it must be done if we are to operate in a world where boundaries are increasingly fluid and the encounter between these perspectives is inevitable.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies represents a unique opportunity to bring the perspectives of the scholar and practitioner together in a forum that respects the integrity of both. The Centre is a meeting point for Hindu scholars and scholars of Hinduism, Hindu students and students of Hinduism, a place where they may exchange ideas, listen, and teach one another. The Centre builds bridges across the academic world, hosting scholars and students from India, North America, and Europe. Now, with official affiliation with Oxford University, we are able to accomplish more than ever before. Let us not miss this opportunity to invest in the future of Hinduism. Indeed, it may be our only opportunity to have our cake and eat it too.