Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Religious Studies! Huh! Good God Y'all. What is it Good For?

Absolutely Nothing.  Or at least absolutely nothing is how Edwin Starr characterized the fruits of war back in 1969.  Because Starr’s sentiments are shared by many in today’s academy, scholars are likely to be troubled by a recent Guardian article about the Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative.  In some ways, Minerva’s objectives seem familiar.   The DoD provides grants to researchers who “define and develop foundational knowledge about sources of present and future conflict with an eye toward better understanding of the political trajectories of key regions of the world.”  To do this, Minerva hopes to encourage a “basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the U.S.”  It’s that last part about strategic importance that is jarring to many scholarly ears.  Humanists and social scientists are uncomfortable with such bald-faced assertions that we seek to know the world in order to control it.

Among other things, Mineva hopes to understand social movements that might foster organized violence.  One possible source of such violence is labeled “belief.”  The hope to better understand belief shapes the first priority research topic entitled: “Belief propagation and movements for change.”  Under the category entitled “mobilization for change,” Minerva welcomes research that helps to develop a “better understanding what drives individuals and groups to mobilize to institute change. In particular, models that explain and explore factors that motivate or inhibit groups to adopt political violence as a tactic will help inform understanding of where organized violence is likely to erupt, what factors might explain its contagion, and how one might circumvent its spread.”

While many scholars of religion might distance themselves from the DoD’s desire to study belief in order to protect security, few eyebrows are raised when religious studies is tasked for civic projects such as “promoting peace” or “teaching tolerance” or “encouraging interreligious harmony.”  While “security” and “peace” conjure up different political associations, it is not clear that they are so analytically distinct.  The Minerva Initiative seeks to identify peaceful and tolerant beliefs that support religious freedom and minimize the threat posed by narrow and intolerant religions thought to produce violence.

If one purpose of the study of religion is to minimize the influence of groups that cause conflict, this might tell us something about the reaction of academics to the recent controversy surrounding Penguin Press’s decision to cease publishing Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History in India.  In a response to critics published in the New York Times, Doniger laments the influence wielded by a “narrow band of narrow-minded Hindus.”  As she states:
I have devoted my entire academic career, going back to the 1960s, to the interpretation of Hinduism and Indian society, and I have long been inured to the vilification of my books by a narrow band of narrow-minded Hindus. Their voices had drowned out those of the broader, more liberal parts of Indian society; it reminded me of William Butler Yeats’s line: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” What is new, and heartening, this time is that the best are suddenly full of passionate intensity. The dormant liberal conscience of India was awakened by the stunning blow to freedom of speech that had been dealt by my publisher in giving in to the demands of the claimants, agreeing to take the book out of circulation and pulp all remaining copies.
Doniger proposes a hermeneutic distinction between the “best” and the “worst.”  She assures us that the best elements in Indian society shape a “dormant liberal conscience” awakened by attempts to censor her book.  This assurance is in tension with political realities like the rise to power of Narendra Modi, who Doniger characterizes as “a member of the ultra-right wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.”  The reason why Modi’s Hinduism does not represent the nation’s conscience is that the origins of his form of Hinduism lie in the inventions of British colonialism: 
Many of the Hindu elite who worked closely with the British caught the prejudices of their masters. In the 19th century, those Hindus lifted up other aspects of Hinduism — its philosophy, its tradition of meditation — that were more palatable to European tastes and made them into a new, sanitized brand of Hinduism, often referred to as Sanatana Dharma, “the Eternal Law.”  That’s the Hinduism that Hindutva-vadis are defending, while they deny the one that the Christian missionaries hated and that I love and write about — the pluralistic, open-ended, endlessly imaginative, often satirical Hinduism. The Hindutva-vadis are the ones who are attacking Hinduism; I am defending it against them.
In a nifty rhetorical move, Doniger casts Hindu nationalists as colonial interlopers against whom she has to defend Hinduism.  There appears to be some strategic essentialism in this rhetorical choice.  In her book, she makes clear than no one can speak for any singular Hindu tradition.  Doniger is rigorously reflective about her own subject-position and notes that the selectivity of her narrative “leaves wide open a great deal of space for others to select from it in writing their own histories, alternative to mine.  Someone else would make different choices and write a very different book.  This is a history, not the history, of the Hindus” (8).  Furthermore, she is careful not to privilege an authentic pre-colonial Hindu past.  She values modern forms of Hinduism that challenge gender and class inequalities.  As she explains, “The new myths of women and Dalits may be unearthings or reworkings of ancient tales that were never preserved or entirely new creations, born of the events of our time” (655).  Doniger’s willingness to drop these qualifications when writing for a popular audience is telling, however, as it demonstrates what happens when interests are threatened in the political sphere. 

None of this is to say that Doniger is wrong about the influence of colonialism on modern India.  Her claim that Hindutva nationalists are selectively inventing the past to support claims about a national essence is a convincing one.  It is no less convincing, however, to note that the claim that a nation of over a billion people has a dormant liberal conscience is also such an attempt to imaginatively produce a national essence.  As theories of nationalism, these are claims of equal plausibility and coherency.  I am less inclined, therefore, to view Doniger’s interlocutors as trapped in a colonial past from which they need to be liberated by the work of academically trained philologists, and more inclined to see the conflict as a reflection of changing historical circumstances.  That is, scholars of religion no longer have the strategic interests of the British Empire.   Contemporary scholars seek instead to produce a Hinduism that is consistent with the types of surveillance and citizenship appropriate to ideals of religious freedom in secular liberal democratic states.  Of course, Doniger’s own political agendas would differ from the aims of the Minerva Initiative.  Liberal academics are more likely to celebrate “pluralistic, open-ended, endlessly imaginative” forms of religion that challenge class and gender inequalities and encourage sexual liberation.  For this reason, Doniger can assert that "the greatness of Hinduism - its vitality, its earthiness, its vividness - lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that some Hindus are ashamed of and would deny" (18).  The standard for “greatness” is what contemporary academics find to be aesthetically and normatively satisfying.  To be sure, many self-identified Hindus would share Doniger’s appraisal of what is great about Hinduism.  In this short blog post, however, I am not attempting to account for the diverse reasons why some might reject or embrace The Hindus.  My interest is in the narrow question of how scholars explain the motives of those who refuse to conform to liberal models of good religion. 

By noting that the greatness of Hinduism lies in qualities that “some Hindus are ashamed of,” Doniger alerts us to another way in which she explains her critics’ refusal to embrace the greatness of their own religion.  In addition to liberating Hindus from colonial distortions of the historical record propagated by narrow-minded political movements, she seeks to undo repression and shame that imprison the Hinduism that she loves.  Whether speaking for an alternative historical tradition or interior libidinal desires, Doniger repeatedly frames her work as an attempt to liberate Hindus to more fully become their true liberal selves.

While I see a productive comparison to be made between the Minerva Initiative’s pursuit of security and the study of religion’s hope to promote peace, there is an important difference worth noting. Whereas the DoD cares about religion only to the extent to which it can pose a threat, Doniger cares deeply about Hinduism.  There is no reason to doubt her sincerity when she tells us about her love for Hindus, and her passion for her subject is one of the reasons why The Hindus is a great read.  She rightly bristles when her critics accuse her of “Christian missionary zeal.”  Doniger has no interest in converting Hindus to Christianity; her project is to convert Hindus to Hinduism. 

To be clear, then, I am not calling into question Doniger’s formidable philological scholarship.  For that matter, there are plenty of reasons to challenge the political and historical claims of her critics.  My concern is what happens when one moves from criticizing one’s interlocutors to claiming to know them better than they know themselves.  To what extent is it appropriate for religious studies to define itself as a missionary project to convert people to the liberal forms of religion that we know they really desire?  What strategic interests are served by producing knowledge about good forms of religion as antidotes to contemporary political realities? 

Rather than confidently assert our distance from colonial pasts or political presents, we might instead ask questions about the purposes for which knowledge about religion is produced.  Critics in this vein might note that disciplinary approaches like ethnography, history, and philology are themselves techniques of surveillance that were professionalized and institutionalized in tandem with the rise of the modern liberal state.  Religious studies, then, might encourage habits of self-criticism that give us pause before attempting to liberate people from themselves.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting... I'm not sure I agree that a goal of religious studies is to promote peace or tolerance, though that may well be a goal of some scholars in the field. in my case, i'm more interested in how peace happens than in making it happen, for example. and I think a lot of scholars of religion are wary of prescriptive projects like Minerva because they tend to valorize studies that provide clear models (the five steps to interreligious harmony or ten easy principles for a pluralist neoliberal society) rather than reflect on the particularities and subtleties that often engage us.
    i totally agree that there is an odd, self-congratulatory air to that op-ed that suggests Doniger is somehow responsible for awakening the kind of Hindus she wants India to be led by. It is a sneaky move to label the Hindutva cadres as neo-colonialists with the moral sensibilities of Christian missionaries, even as she graces them with the realities they hide from themselves. As a mythologist, she might appreciate her Minerva-like characterization:)