The eleven volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism has been the subject of both media coverage and special events, including a recent conference hosted at the University of South Carolina. The encyclopedia developed from an international collaboration as a project of the India Heritage Research Foundation (IHRF), “founded, guided, inspired and led by one of India’s most revered spiritual leaders, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji.” The swami’s description of the encyclopedia suggested the foundational assumptions of the encyclopedia.
The wisdom, truths, teachings and insights of Indian and Hindu culture are not limited to or applicable to only Hindus or Indians. Rather they belong to the world and can deeply benefit the world. It is, therefore, our aim that the richness of this ancient yet timeless culture and heritage should be made available to the entire world, in a way that is authentic, academic, comprehensive and illuminating.
The managing editor of the encyclopedia (also an official with IHRF) connected the encyclopedia with the needs of Hindu parents, particularly those who reside outside South Asia. When children bring questions from school about Hinduism, the parents “wanted a source to go to so they could pass the correct information to their children.”
So, this academic, comprehensive work is doing significant theological work, potentially elevating the views and values of those who form its foundation (not only the authors but also the IHRF) as the source that both scholars and families will consult. The encyclopedia does not simply present a description of reality but constructs that reality according to the conceptions of a foundation.
But of course, this is not unusual. Much academic work, in the study of religion and elsewhere, develops in similar situations, particularly when money is involved. For example, the John Templeton Foundation provides grants to replicate the ideas of its namesake, Sir John Templeton. For example, the foundation’s Character Virtue Development core area, includes “universal truths of character development, from childhood through young adulthood and beyond. The qualities of character emphasized by Sir John in the Foundation’s charter include awe, creativity, curiosity, diligence, entrepreneurialism, forgiveness, future-mindedness, generosity, gratitude, honesty, humility, joy, love, purpose, reliability, and thrift.” Of course, that universality is not really universal, as many people do not agree with everything included (and excluded) on this list.
Or consider the fourth overall aim of Harvard’s Pluralism Project “To discern, in light of this work, the emerging meanings of religious ‘pluralism,’ both for religious communities and for public institutions, and to consider the real challenges and opportunities of a public commitment to pluralism in the light of the new religious contours of America.” “Religious pluralism,” then, serves as a foundational value in the research that they have sponsored. (For full disclosure, I was a participant in a research project funded by the Pluralism Project while in graduate school.)
The issue is that the research, influenced by financial backing, promotes particular values and thus limits what questions can be asked. Such an approach makes those values appear normative and cloaks them with a sense of universality and academic objectivity that hides the interests and financial power that is behind those particular values. No research is value free, of course, which confirms that all research is a construction of an object rather than simply a description. Considering what foundational values go unquestioned within a project, though, is central to critical scholarship.