The Big Scandal of Indology

  • This article tells you how a category of Indologists seek to define India, looking at Bharat through their limited prism.

Imagine this: While traveling through a foreign land, you find an announcement of a public lecture about your country at your hotel. Being free that afternoon and feeling nostalgic for home, you and your spouse go to the lecture and discover that while the speaker knows the broad elements of the history of your country, his understanding is so shallow that it borders on nonsense.

What can you do? You can’t just say, “Excuse me, but you have it all wrong.” No, because you’re in a foreign country, and your spouse will never forgive you for creating a commotion. Not wanting to be rude or be accused of grandstanding for attention, you hold your tongue and walk out at the first opportunity. Later, you speak privately with the speaker and find it is not just him, he was taught wrong stuff at his college; it is pervasive.

This is the big scandal of Indology: Almost all you will read in academic textbooks about ancient India is either superficial, banal, half-truth or plain wrong. The understanding of earliest India offered by the Indology community is based on flimsy philosophical and methodological foundations and a deep misunderstanding of the texts.

Worse, it is a racist enterprise in which the stated objective is to teach Indians what their books mean. Its premise is that Indians are culturally backward, and they never developed scientific or critical thinking, and so they lack access to the “true” meaning of their texts. 

It is further implied that the original authors of the your-texts, that over the millennia have expanded into voluminous tomes with internal contradictions, were outsiders like the Indologists themselves, and the current confusing state of the texts reflects cultural shortcomings of Indians as a consequence of the intermingling of the original Indo-Europeans with the lesser races of India!

Hold it, you’d say! Isn’t it stupid to believe this? India is one of the cradles of world science and of logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, aesthetics, moral and political discourse, not to mention stories and fables. Modern science itself has much that is based on Indian contributions. The Indologists generally don’t know this science so they respond by saying that these were contributions to Western enterprises and besides, they add, what they are pointing to are Indian cultural deficiencies.

You say that couldn’t be true, for Indians are amongst the most successful entrepreneurs in the West, where there is a level playing-field. They say, maybe “yes”, but it’s only because Indians are mimicking the Westerners. And when it comes to the old texts, Indians carry so much of emotional baggage that only they (the Westerners) can interpret them.

How can people in the academy believe in such racist stuff, you ask? Why haven’t these folks been drummed out of colleges for stupidity, if nothing else?


First hubris, then scandal.

The answer is a complicated story. But first, the calling attention to this scandal is not a reaction of Indians to the painful memory of their colonized past. Scholars both in the West and India have for decades pointed to the hollowness of the assumptions of Indology and the absurdity of their conclusions.

Neither does the scandal have anything to do with the national origin of the professors or whether they belong to one tradition or the other. Many Westerners have done wonderful work on India and likewise many Indian professors have done shoddy work. To get true insight in any field, one needs to approach it with humility and pure heart, and suspend the lens of one’s own tradition, whatever that might be. In the world of wisdom and insight, class, nationality or race do not matter: we are all equal.

In private conversations with academics who work on India, there is acknowledgement that there is a cabal that consists of racists, European supremacists, leftists and others who might be sincere but so marinated in an obviously wrong paradigm that they don’t even know they are wrong. And then, of course, there are the thick-headed ones who just don’t get it; one of those once wrote me an email saying that only “philologists have the authority to interpret ancient India.”

Unbiased editors, themselves academics, are aware that many Indology faculty are so fanatical and politicized so as to have lost contact with the truth. This explains how I came to be invited to write several dozen encyclopaedia articles on ancient India: if you look, for example, at Stanley Wolpert’s authoritative Encyclopaedia of India, you will see I have the second-most number of contributions (18), next only to Wolpert’s own (19).

To be fair, the Indologists made useful contributions in lexicography, manuscript preservation and collation in the 19th century. If one may use Bhartṛhari’s categories, it was good work at the vaikharī and the madhyamā levels but quite wrong at the paśyantī.

The Indologists missed the larger meaning that provides coherence to the Indian texts; this is why their mistakes have continued generation after generation. Sri Aurobindo was right to point out that the European interpretations of the Vedas are essentially worthless.

To make sure that there is no misunderstanding, what I mean by the enterprise of the Indologists are narratives on ancient India and to that extent they affect understanding of the later periods. I acknowledge the great contributions scholars from the West have done to the understanding of the classical period and thereafter.

Monuments of Modhera, Ellora, Patan.  

Academic Indology

Historically, the universities in Germany began the academic study of India and this serves as basis for western interpretations of ancient Indian history and traditions. In The Nay Science: A History of German Indology, Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee chart the history of the discipline to show its questionable philosophical assumptions, anti-semitic and anti-Brahmanic attitudes, and racial prejudice.

In an interview, Adluri calls the racism of Indology insidious. “The Indologists had for so long told themselves that Indians lacked access to the “true” meaning of their texts that they no longer considered it a prejudice but a methodological principle and a necessary one at that.” 

The Indologists declared that the texts were not to be read as Indians read them for they lacked scientific and critical thinking; they [Indologists] are the final judge of what India’s culture and civilization was and is and only they can change India by intervening in its history by teaching Indians to understand their past that will give them the agency to make change.

Hermann Oldenberg, a 19th century leader of academic Indology, said that Indians are under the tyranny of “the misshapen, wild, cruel, [and] lascivious Hindu Gods, at their head Shiva and Vishnu.” 

The Indologists saw themselves as revolutionaries who want to save the Hindus quite in the same spirit as the Christian missionary and the Tablighi Jamaat want to save Hindus.


Academic control

Christopher Minkowski, at his Inaugural Lecture for Boden Professorship at Oxford University is very transparent about the need to control Sanskrit studies. Lamenting that the Indian claim to Sanskrit’s authority has not withered in spite of continual assault by the Indologists, he claims that “if they accepted that claim, it would put them into a rivalry with the language’s traditionally trained, hereditary “native” experts.”

Minkowski adds: “Modern scholars, then, sought a method for containing Sanskrit’s potential to activate its cultural politics, by subjecting the study of Sanskrit to scholarly protocols which were antithetical to the language’s genius and charisma. They opted for a decidedly unromantic array of curatorial and antiquarian forms of scholarship: philologizing, cataloguing, typologizing, organizing into chronologies, and so on; eminently useful practices, no doubt, but none of them glamorous.”

In other words, the protocols are to deny Indian scholars of Sanskrit a place at the academic table.

So here we have a situation of parallel worlds, for traditional Indian scholars reject literally all Western academic scholarship and as far as they are concerned this stuff doesn’t even exist.

Monuments of Belur, Mahabalipuram and Thanjavur.  

Delusion and befuddlement

One reason that the Indologists are befuddled is because of incorrect assumptions about the nature of Indian society. In my view, India was not fundamentally different from the rest of the world, and jātis are very much like communities elsewhere in the world. The caste system as we see it was created by the British for the jātis “were not aware of the specific varṇa class they belonged to but were squeezed into the varṇa system by the British administrators.”

Likewise, the Brahmins were not unlike priestly communities elsewhere in the world and their class was not closed. We know from modern times that communities can just declare themselves to be Brahmins (like the Saurashtras) and the same process doubtlessly occurred in the past as well.

Even if one were to excuse their self-confessed bias, why did the Indologists turn out to be so totally wrong in their understanding of the texts? Many of them were competent and patient scholars who were trying their best to make sense of what they had in front of them.

The answer is that the Indian texts have traps for the uninitiated. If the process of understanding involves many steps in a ladder, there is much in the texts that will let you believe you have reached the top at whatever step, if that is where you want to be. Thus, there is room in the texts both for those who believe that the ritual is only outer, and others who believe it is symbolic.

When it comes to moral precepts, the dharmaśāstras present material that might be contradictory in details because different subsets of these precepts were embraced by different communities. It was a system perfected for diversity!

Most significantly, if ātmavidyā, the central science of the Vedas, cannot be described in the usual categories of language as Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad instructs us, then the description through different lenses (not just the six main darśanas but many more that can be imagined) will have elements that are in contradiction. It is indeed a case of the six blind men feeling an elephant and coming up with different descriptions. The contradictions are both at the philosophical and the ritual levels and part of the instruction is to reach these contradictions (as crises in one’s understanding) to prepare oneself for intuitive insight that takes one to a deeper understanding.

Indian texts also require navigating protocols of their own. This is where the guru or the teacher comes in, and oral instruction is extolled. The Indologist does a literal reading and gets lost and thinks this means that there is no written stuff anywhere! The declarations within the tradition are not be taken literally.

I have been surprised how many Western acolytes often interpret stories of a spiritual master’s presence at two places at the same time as the literal truth. Growing up in the company of sadhus and other spiritual people, one learnt to separate the metaphorical from the literal.

The Indologists are using concepts from their society to look at India; concepts that are too limiting. They don’t understand India for they misunderstand the foundations of its culture. This will explain the strange books and articles being churned out on how there was no writing in India no matter if Panini says he knew writing, how the Brahmins cunningly converted most of Asia to their ideology, and how through yoga, which in their view has nothing to do with Hinduism even though it is the heart of the Bhagavad Gita and one of the six darśanas, they are spreading their ideas around the world.

One might ask how did the Indologists prosper for this long? There was a convergence in the program of the Indian political left (to save India from the clutches of tradition) and that of the Indologists. Due to centralization of the academic system in India and its control by the left for decades, the alliance had patronage.

If Indian ideas are spreading, it is only because the Indian tradition speaks to the problem of consciousness, which is also the frontier of modern science. It is a problem that the Western tradition largely ignored and people are attracted to Indian thought and practices for it fulfils a deeply felt need.

The Indian system does not depend on the machinations and cunning of any specific class of people. India offers a universal message open to all in which each person is equal for the same puruṣa (consciousness) resides within each, and it offers practices related to self-discovery. That is something that the Indologists do not appear to understand.

Subhash Kak is Author, scientist. Quantum information, AI, history of science.

This article was first published here eSamskriti has obtained permission from author to share. All pictures by Sanjeev Nayyar. 

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