Residual Assumptions

Shiv havan cropped

In a recent email discussion among scholars about general issues of representations and Wendy Doniger’s controversial book (about which I have written on Culture on the Edge and Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog), P. Pratap Kumar, a colleague in South Africa, framed the issue through a clear, though contrived, contrast between the scholar and the devotee. He wrote,

Someone who is raised as a Hindu grows up listening to religious songs at Satsangs and even through Bollywood religious songs (there are plenty of Bollywood religious songs that Hindus listen to with utmost devotion) and never would have known that their Hindu texts contain many erotic statements and not just the singular term Linga. But on the other hand, scholars especially from the outside Hindu tradition (be they western or eastern) begin with Sanskrit language and then reading the highly specialised texts where they find statements that devout Hindus would have never heard of. From scholar’s reading, there are indeed very detailed erotic references in many Hindu texts, . . .
We as scholars have to talk about these things because these matters are there in the texts from the Rig Veda to the epics in plenty of places. It is hard to fault a western scholar or any non-Hindu scholar for pointing these out and translating them for what they are.

What particularly caught my eye in this generalized contrast is the assumptions informing each side. The scholar’s training (as Pratap constructs her) forefronts the texts, assuming that whatever is in the text is a part of Hinduism. While many scholars are not focused on texts and translations today, the suggestion that something in the Vedas, puranas, or epics is fair game for representations of Hinduism is common. This earlier assumption retains a continuing influence. For the devotee (again in Pratap’s construction), if it is not in their experience of texts and practices, it is not Hindu.

It is easy to see the devotee’s construction as being narrow, limited to their own experience rather than the broader diversity that people identify with Hinduism. Yet, the scholar’s position, while perhaps appearing more expansive, simply reflects a different narrowing of the boundaries. Assuming that something in the text is automatically representative maintains a residual aspect of the European construction of religion, often termed Orientalism now, that the text is the basis for a religion. It actually sounds like the colonizers trying to be certain that they are not being fooled by those who are explaining cultural elements to them. “Where does it say that in the text?” they might ask.

Doniger’s interest in extending her readers’ conception of Hinduism and preserving it from homogenizing limiting forces appears expansive but retains its own limiting assumptions. What often appears to be obvious is obvious because the assumptions that determine the observation or description have been effectively naturalized as the way things are, not a specific choice in a particular moment. Of course, that naturalization is not universal, as others in other situations make different “obvious” choices that produce different boundaries and descriptions.

Thanks to Pratap Kumar for permission to quote from the private listserv. Photo of shivlingam with offerings by Steven Ramey

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