Challenges to the Course

Associates of the Infinity Foundation [IF], one of the organizations our students studied in 2003, have mounted a series of vigorous challenges to the conception and conduct of “Hinduism Here.” To view these, please consult the Infinity Foundation’s Response to Sneha Mehta’s paper, written by Krishnan Ramaswamy, and Mr. Ramaswamy’s Response to Michele Moritis’s paper about Arsha Vidya Gurukulum. In both instances, criticisms are made not just about the work of individual students but about Professor Hawley’s guidance – or lack of guidance – to them.

These attacks come as no surprise. One of the main objectives of the Infinity Foundation, especially in recent years, has been to criticize the way in which Hinduism and Indic traditions have been represented in American academic life. It therefore seemed very important to include it among the organizations we studied as the course was launched for the first time, and we are grateful to the Infinity Foundation for consenting to take part in the work of the course. The Foundation’s surveillance of the Academy points to another important fact: that a classroom at Barnard or Columbia is also a place where “Hinduism Here” happens. In the view of the Infinity Foundation, it happens very inadequately.

In the list below, which is far from exhaustive, the Foundation’s challenges are summarized in italic; a response by Jack Hawley follows in roman.

1. The playing field is not level. An asymmetry exists between Western academics and Indic traditions, with the former occupying the position of greater power.

I have tried to structure this course so that any such asymmetry would be removed – through dialogue, reading, and discussion. We have devoted considerable time in class to a discussion of a colonial and Orientalist past where this sort of criticism would certainly have been justified. We have been impressed with the ability of representatives of the Infinity Foundation to reach vast numbers of people especially by means of the Internet, as they themselves are quick to emphasize. This is real power. The ability to post effectively on the Internet can be a very good thing, creating the ability to misrepresentations quickly. It can also be a bad thing, creating the ability to spread falsehoods just as quickly.

2. Emic vs. etic: Outsiders are not well positioned to see an insider’s truth.

I agree with much that IF says in this vein, and have therefore been very pleased that our class includes both people who are Hindu by birth and those who are not: such balance and interplay is very productive. But I reject the idea that there is a firm divide between emic and etic – the inside and the outside. (There is a large literature on this subject to which the IF never refers.) I also reject the idea that there is any such thing as monolithic Hinduism, though I respect efforts to find commonalities that unify the tradition more than its structures would sometimes make apparent. Similarly, I reject the idea that there is in any singular way “the Indic view from within,” as IF says. Elsewhere they have spoken about the fact and virtue of plurality in Hinduism and Indic traditions: that view doesn’t always come across in what they say about this course.

Rajiv Malhotra and others at IF has said that only those who practice Hinduism have the sort of constructive incentive that is necessary to think about the Hindu tradition and those who practice it fairly and creatively. I agree that that constructivist position is a special one – this is why institutions such as gurukulams and seminaries are crucial. But “the constructive” comes in many forms. A religion that fends off lines of inquiry even from friends is in trouble. Fortunately the IF’s stance is very much the exception to the rule as far as Hinduism is concerned.

3. Students in this course are ill-prepared and ill-guided.

The IF has suggested the course could be improved if at least one other course in Hinduism were required as a prerequisite. It has also criticized me for not guiding students properly, whatever their level of preparation.

In regard to the former, I agree that background is always helpful – but it comes in many ways. A Hindu Ph.D. student in biomechanics (as one of our students is), commands a background that positions him admirably to enter into the work of the course, even though he has not taken a university-level course on Hinduism. A student from a secular or Christian background who has a background in education is well-positioned in other ways, especially if she is interested in Hindu education practices. Both students will have things to learn – and both have been excited by the process of doing so.

The IF has criticized student papers for being inaccurate, and has blamed me for failing to correct – and indeed inspiring – errors. In fact, the course requires students to submit papers simultaneously to me and to the organizations being studied at the end of the course. This means I am reacting to papers at the same time as the IF, and suggesting changes as I go. Rajiv Malhotra requested to see an earlier draft of Sneha Mahta’s paper on IF, and she complied. So he is well aware that I had some of the same criticisms and queries as he did on this occasion, and that Ms. Mehta revised the draft in light of what we both had said and in light of her own further reflections. The foundation also knows that this process of criticism and revision is ongoing.

4. The course is unscientific and irresponsible in its methodology.

I make no claim that this course is scientific. It is a humanities course. As such, our purpose is to investigate, appreciate, and interpret, not to pursue a hypothesis that we form in our minds before beginning. Krishnan Ramaswamy and Rajiv Malhotra have claimed that I actually have such thesis and that I am trying to prove it-through the work of students in this course. They claim my thesis is that America is spawning its own brand of Hinduism and that this Hinduism is influential in the world Hindu community with a force that is disproportionate to the relatively small numbers of American Hindus.

In the opening section of his review of Michele Moritis’s work, Mr. Ramaswamy says the course syllabus itself does not substantiate the latter claim. This is true. A syllabus by its nature is simply a course outline, not an extensive argument. It is also true that a number of thoughtful scholars – many of them Hindu – have articulated this perspective on American Hinduism, and the point has been made about several other religious communities in diaspora, as well. In any case, such a thesis is hardly to be regarded as criticism, as the IF seems to think.

5. The course should have been focused, at least in part, on “the influence that majority-Christian preachers, western or etic academics, and the news-media have exerted on popular conceptions of Hinduism,” since these have been (quoting me) “far more creative than their sheer numbers would predict.”

Aspects of many courses at Barnard and Columbia do indeed devote themselves to this goal, mine included (e.g., a doctoral seminar on “World Religions: Idea, Display, Institution”), and in this course too, there is a component on the debate about “constructions of Hinduism” where questions of external agency and privilege arise crucially. In this course our primary focus is not on conceptions and misconceptions from the outside, but on what Hindus themselves think.

I am appalled to find my conduct as an “etic academic” set alongside that of right-wing Christian groups who characterize Hindus and other non-Christian religions as demonic. Like the IF, I am engaged in the fight to correct false representations of Hinduism. It is discouraging to be classed with the enemy.

6. The course “denies dignity” to Hindus and does not engage them as equals. Hawley has been invited by the IF to “have open debates and panels, where the scholars and diaspora would be equally represented, but he has simply ignored these invitations.”

Not true. I hope the inclusion of an interactive conference in the course is obvious evidence to the contrary. A number of conference participants have remarked on the atmosphere of balance, cordiality, and respect that was established and maintained throughout the day.

The charge that I have ignored requests to engage in open debate is also false. Rajiv Malhotra visited the class and engaged in quite a bit of “open debate.” In November, 2001, I organized a panel at the American Academy of Religion that was explicitly intended to put Hindus in conversation with academics. I invited Rajiv Malhotra to be on the panel, and made sure that the results would be posted not just on the listserv of RISA, but on Indictraditions, a listserv launched by Mr. Malhotra. Interested readers can recap this panel, which was called “Defamation/Anti/Defamation” at

7. Students are forced to adopt Hawley’s perspectives.

Krishnan Ramaswamy alleges that I use my power as grade-giver to persuade students to lean toward perspectives I favor. Here is another expression of the knowledge/power hybrid about which Sneha Mehta speaks, as she herself is aware.

In assigning grades, I give credit to cogency of argumentation and independence of thought. Doubtless my sense of what counts as cogency and independence would not be everyone’s, but I try to keep my own views separate from any expectation of what students might espouse. In class discussion, a main purpose of mine is to encourage debate – the presentation of many sides of an issue. In responding to the IF’s view of the closed discourse that characterizes classrooms such as mine, a number of students protested that it just didn’t match their experience.

I am criticized for “badgering students who come back with a positive set of findings” and so forth. You can judge this for yourself by reading Rama Krishnan’s and Pankaj Jain’s papers on the IF. It’s true that I raised questions and encouraged them to think independently in their assessments. My goal was to help them look at broader elements of context than might be featured in the self-representations of the IF or any other group. If this is badgering, then I have to say that’s a crucial part of what I think a professor’s job is about, and part of what I hope students will ask of each other.