Hindu objections to Reza Aslan’s documentary are missing a crucial point
We should look at Aslan’s attempt to understand and explain Indian traditions as a nascent revivification of Islamic Orientalism.
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The first instalment of Reza Aslan’s documentary on Hinduism and the Aghori "sect" has provoked controversy and critical reaction among Hindus as well as others, who have expressed multiple dissatisfactions about the documentary.
Among the criticisms, one dimension is conspicuous by its absence - Orientalism.
I want to make the claim here that Hindu objections to Aslan’s documentary fail to have traction because they do not take into account the nature of religion and its relationship to Orientalism.
While Indians get rightly riled up about the destruction, conversion and slavery visited upon their ancestors with the Muslim conquests, the intellectual production by Muslims is worth examining. We have forgotten that well before the cultural project that was Western Orientalism, there was an Islamic Orientalism which gave rise to a series of accounts of Indian religion, culture and society.
This Islamic Orientalism, augmented with the Muslim colonisation of India, entailed accounts written by Muslims. Their basic shape was constituted by the religion of Islam. In other words, Islam provided the presuppositions and constraints around which the accounts of foreign cultures got formulated and retold.
Carl W Ernst has explained how Muslim philosophers and mystics, from the 11th to the 18th centuries, employed familiarising techniques of translation and interpretation with standard Islamic taxonomies to assimilate Indian religions to norms of monotheism and prophecy, as well as more basic concepts of magic, although the issue of Indian idolatry, and thus the falsity of Indian religion, remained a stubborn problem.Reza Aslan’s documentary on Hinduism and the Aghori "sect" has provoked controversy and critical reaction among Hindus. (Photo: CNN)
In some ways, the Muslim accounts thus antedated and anticipated the later European Christian-Orientalist story about Indian religion, although it is in the latter that they are developed further and more systematically, and secularised in the human sciences.
I want to suggest that we look at Aslan’s attempt to understand and explain Indian traditions as a nascent revivification of Islamic Orientalism. Balagangadhara has explained that Orientalism does not provide factual descriptions of Oriental societies and cultures. Rather it is how the West brings together certain phenomena to structure its experience of the world. Balagangadhara argues that the current practice of social sciences and humanities cannot correct Orientalism as they constrain each other.
Orientalism cannot be corrected by adducing factual evidence because the basis of its structuring enterprise lies elsewhere. The basis of Western Orientalism lies in how a culture constituted by Christianity structures its experience of the Orient.
For Islamic Orientalism, a cognate process occurred with respect to India. In either case, there is no way one can factually contest their claims, although one can expose their non-objective nature. This feature of Orientalism provides a clue as to why Hindu contestation of claims made in Aslan’s documentary are ineffectual.
Popular images of India are today spread among Muslims in various ways: through mosques where Allah is beseeched to grant victory against non-Muslims, when the media figure Mehdi Hassan describes non-Muslims as cattle, and when young Muslims in British madrassas are told that the practice of drinking cow’s urine is an index of Hindu stupidity.
It must be assumed that among Muslims these are widely held basic contemporary notions about Hindus. With his scholarly background, Aslan’s venture could, it might have been hoped, promise an intellectual approach to understanding Indian traditions, thus rising above the parapet of everyday Quranic dogmas, and potentially teach his fellow Muslims and others something important about India. His would also be a rare venture among Muslim academics going beyond a concern with Muslim-only topics, to which they appear to have overwhelmingly retreated.
In taking some common sense ideas about India on which to peg his account, Hinduism looms large already in the opening sequence of Aslan’s documentary. There is, however, no "Hinduism" in the earlier Muslim accounts and, certainly, the term would not have been recognised by Indians of the time.
There were, however, references to Hindus, explained by the now familiar etymological narrative about the culture determined by the geographical marker of the Indus, as well as a sense that the Hindus did have religions of their own. As Balagangadhara has explained, because they came from a culture that has religion, they would have had to see religion in India even where there was none.
As Balagangadhara also explains, Hinduism does not exist except in Western universities. It was brought into being as a conceptual unit by Protestant missionaries who developed accounts of a priestly Indian religion. Although in widespread use today, the term Hinduism makes no sense outside that context because it is part of an experiential account of India that could only have been formulated by people from a culture immersed in a Protestant theological framework. To the extent that his Muslim forbears did not conceive of Hinduism, we must conclude that Aslan’s account is parasitic on the results of European Christian-Orientalism and its secularisation.
Aslan’s documentary also connects Hinduism with the caste system. This is another common sense idea about India today. However, as Louise Marlow informs us, the presence of the caste system appears to have totally escaped those Muslims who wrote accounts of India during medieval times.
Incidentally, neither do earlier Greek or Chinese travellers appear to have noticed the caste system, although somehow people never fail to notice its presence in India today. Again, this apparent inconsistency can be explained by reference to the 19th century Protestant accounts of India. It was in their descriptions that we also find an intimate dependence between the religion Hinduism and the caste system.
As Jakob de Roover has shown, Protestants were compelled by their theological framework, not only to find in India the false religion of Hinduism, but to assert that it had a hierarchical and oppressive social structure mandated by the caste of priests, the Brahmins, who set up a system of obligatory discrimination. This is why Hindus are thought to be incorrigibly immoral.
Exactly like Hinduism therefore, the caste system, and attendant paraphernalia, such the tropes Aslan deploys about untouchability, is an entity that exists only in the European Christian experience of India. Its existence otherwise is unprovable; it is simply presupposed today because of the spread of the specific Christian account that gave life to it.
Taking his description of Hinduism and its caste system together, we find that Aslan barely manages to improve on our contemporary impressions of India beyond these givens. If his is an intellectual Muslim contribution to the study of India, it has not taken us much further than the creations of the Protestants and Orientalists. Instead, he only strengthens them.
However, Aslan’s venture provides some clues about a possible future for Islamic Orientalism. As educated and scholarly Muslims like him try to improve upon the more popular transmission of images of Hindus (or polytheists) being spread through mosque khutbas and the like, today they appear compelled to parasitically rely upon, to augment and to reinforce the layers of European Orientalism that superseded earlier Islamic Orientalism.
Muslims might be unavoidably trapped in one of these discourses of Orientalism, or some combination of them, unable to transcend them by developing a deeper understanding of the frameworks through which they have been taught to perceive the world beyond their own.
As an interesting aside, academic Jeffrey D Long has drawn attention to an earlier conversation with Aslan during which the latter made the comment that "Hinduism does not exist". Although he does not appear to have dug further then into why Aslan thought that of Hinduism, Long puts it down to his superficial knowledge of Hindu traditions.
In other words, had Aslan known something more of those traditions he would presumably have been convinced (as he appears to be now), that the entity Hinduism exists. Long also says that the Hinduism-does-not-exist trope silences self-identifying Hindus and robs them of agency. Paradoxically, Hindus, who one may presume know something of their traditions too, risk imperilling their agency should they dare question the status of Hinduism. Now who would want to do that?
But notice how Hindu reprisals contribute to strengthening the Christian-Orientalist account. Opposition to Aslan’s documentary is based on his offensive treatment of "Hinduism". I am not aware of any exceptions to this way of dealing with his documentary. Doubtless Aslan’s primary focus is Hinduism and its caste system. Aghoribabas, who eat human flesh, while being part of Hinduism, are to play the role of challengers to its caste system. But Hindu dharma-yoddhas also accept as true the existence of Hinduism as well as the caste system.
Besides the various objections arising from the timing of the documentary (given recent racist murders in the US), its stereotyping and sensationalising of Hindus, and its contributing to an overall climate of intolerance, the one thing they consistently express objection to is the misrepresentation of Hinduism and the caste system. They do not say that the caste system and Hinduism are inexistent but, presuming their existence, they claim that Aslan’s account of them is either false or misleading.
This considerably weakens their case. Having accepted Hinduism and the caste system as existing entities, they are compelled to say that the cannibalistic Aghori babas are extreme, marginal or fringe to the religion and do not represent it. Well, in his defence, Aslan says that he has said those very same things about the Aghoris.
Vamsee Juluri, the author of the acclaimed book Rearming Hinduism, and one of Aslan’s US-based detractors, explained to me that Hinduism may not exist, but he sees a “strategic need” to use it to defend Hindus. This professed strategy is bound to fail and, worse, it contributes to the destruction of Indian traditions. Not only does it compel a distancing from and denial of the Aghoris, it inevitably involves accepting ideas about India endowed to humanity by Protestant missionaries.
Indians have no access to such ideas, produced as they were with a Protestant Christian framework in the background. One cannot merely accept a term formulated within such a context and merely argue about the factual details of its representation. This amounts to a mistaken belief about the location of the Kurukshetra.
Accepting the description "Hinduism" entails spreading further and reinforcing the Christian framework of understanding India in a secularised form. It wrongly promotes Christianity as the purveyor of true descriptions of Indian culture, considerably reducing the space between Aslan and his critics.