Hindu Studies curriculum upholds Brahmanical tenets: Professor
The education ministry has launched a postgraduate “Hindu Studies” programme, already adopted by Banaras Hindu University and the Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri National Sanskrit University. Former JNU professor Ranabir Chakravarti, an expert on ancient Indian history and culture and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Erfurt in Germany, dissects this curriculum in this dialogue with Subhoranjan Dasgupta, professor of human science.
Q: The “Hindu Studies” curriculum is linked to a social project that asserts that (i) the caste system is inclusive and cohesive; (ii) foreign scholars have provided a negative and erratic interpretation of Hindu theory and practice; and (iii) Buddhism and Jainism are branches of Hinduism. Should we regard the caste system as benign and inclusive, or as brutally divisive and merciless?
Chakravarti: The claim that varna-jati or the caste system (it’s been endorsed in the Srimadbhagavat Gita) is cohesive and benign is fatuous and false. The course content of the said syllabus has little analytical orientation to the varna-jati system, which is steeped in exclusivity and exclusionary programmes. There is no trace of peaceful coexistence among the castes in the caste system as proposed by the curriculum.
Contrary to the perception that the varna system presents a well-ordered and stable society, stressing the peaceful coexistence of social groups, the varna ideology from the Later Vedic times (circa 800 BCE) perpetuated insurmountable inequalities and ostracism, heaped on the lower orders and the a-varna groups. The situation worsened with the consolidation of the jati system that relegated a large section of the population, mainly the a-varna group, to a sub-human existence and untouchability.
Indeed, if Hinduism is seen as a way of life, as Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan preferred to view it, then it is difficult to extricate it from the abysmal inequality inherent in the varna-jati system. Inseparably entwined with the varna-jati system and tied to patriarchy is the secondary and subordinate position of women in Hindu ideals, ideas and practices. There are numerous examples of this.
Q: Is it correct that foreign scholars have given a “negative” and erratic interpretation of Hindu theory and practice?
Chakravarti: Nothing could be farther from the truth. The sustained tradition of Indology, still prevailing in the West — primarily in Germany, the UK and the US — has a worth of its own. It is frivolous to claim that this great tradition of learning and knowledge-production, starting from William Jones right up to Gunther Sontheimer, Hermann Kulke, Oskar von Hinuber and Harry Falk, is negative and erratic.
Instead of indulging in massive misinterpretation, this tradition has highlighted the history of Indic thoughts and philosophy. A.L. Basham’s seminal text, The Wonder That Was India, and Max Mueller’s full-throated invocation, “I point towards India”, are examples of the deep reverence displayed by foreign scholars.
I am tempted to add a few lines on the German tradition of Indology which, in fact, can be regarded as unique. The illustrious Arthur Schopenhauer, Hermann Jacobi, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Max Mueller, H. Oldenberg, G. Buhler, E. Hultzsch, F. Kielhorn and H. Luders (the last four being premier epigraphists) have made phenomenal contributions to the study and development of Indology. How can we describe as erratic and false Max Mueller’s stupendous translation of the Rig Veda?
Lastly, how can we forget the praise that Goethe heaped on Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam, or Heinrich Heine’s inspired poems on the Ganga and the Indian landscape? In short, resplendent creativity and profound philosophy enriched Indology.
I refer now to the three eminent centres of Hindu studies in the West. The first is the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (University of Oxford), established in 1997. It functions as an independent academy for the study of Hindu cultures, societies, philosophies, religions and languages across all periods. What is remarkable is that the OCHS emphasises multiplicities within the rubric of Hinduism. This is conspicuously missing from the current curriculum of “Hindu Studies” introduced in our country.
The second example is the Religious Studies programme at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. It requires students to analyse religious ideas, practices and materialities from their historical, cultural and societal contexts. Are these concepts (italicised here) visible anywhere in the “Hindu Studies” curriculum offered in our country? No.
The third example is that of Rutgers University, a highly acclaimed institution in the US, which has a course on the history of Hinduism that covers the Vedas and Vedic society; the Mahabharata and the Gita; (the) ordering (of) life and society; the Ramayana and Ramanujan; temples and ritual practices; (the) divergent paths (of) Tantra, Bhakti and the Puranas; festivals and pilgrims; and caste and Dalit perspectives.
The emphasis in all these three programmes in the West is on the plurality, diversity and multiplicity that should be an integral part of (any) Hindu studies (programme) worth its name. Hence, these three programmes and the “Hindu Studies” syllabus are like chalk and cheese.
Q: I now come to the third query: Are Buddhism and Jainism mere offshoots of Hinduism?
Chakravarti: Buddhism and Jainism have never been offshoots of the Brahmanical Hindu religion. While at the core of the “Hindu Studies” (programme) lies Brahmanical notions and tenets of the Smritis and the Puranas — upholding Vedic ideology — Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikism (those who believed in the doctrine of destiny) and Lokayata/ Charvaka (the materialists) unequivocally challenged the supposed infallibility of the Vedas.
All these renunciant religions categorically refused to accept the social and ritual supremacy of the Brahmanas. How can one miss that the Upanishads hardly attached any importance to the sacrificial cults and compared the ineffectuality of sacrifices (yajnas) with infirm (adridhah) boats (plavah)?
To bring these varied religious-philosophical contradictions and contestations — known as Shramanic views — within a neat Hindu fold is neither authentic nor correct. It unveils, instead, the appropriatory programme and invasive operations on which the Brahmanical system and ideology has been functioning for ages.
In a way, it fuels the wrong idea that Buddhism, Jainism and similar Shramanic religions were/ are rebel children of Hinduism. A wish for the return of the “prodigal children” to the Hindu fold (ghar-wapsi) can be read between the lines of the syllabus.
Let us not forget that Patanjali in his Mahabhashya compared the hostile relationship between the Shramana and the Brahmana with that between the snake and the mongoose (ahinakula). Thus, it is obvious that Buddhism and Jainism cannot be subsidiary branches of Brahmanical Hinduism.
Q: What would be your final evaluation of the “Hindu Studies” programme, especially of its societal influence and role?
Chakravarti: The “Hindu Studies” syllabus is short on pedagogic innovativeness, both in terms of course content and method of instruction. It appears to have been built upon the perceptions and portrayals of what was labelled “Sanatana Dharma”, deeply influenced and coloured by Brahmanical ideas and ideals.
The unstated catchword therein is showing obedience to, and not questioning, the received knowledge.