A note on scholarship and representation, and studying and teaching Hinduism
Historically studies of Hinduism available in English have tended to reflect the values and preoccupations of Western commentators, be it their Christian backgrounds leading to speculations about the prospects for conversion, their classical education giving rise to research on the relationship between ancient India and Europe in cultural, linguistic and religious terms, or their imperial interests conducing towards a back projection of foreign invasion and rule to the Aryan ‘conquest’ of the subcontinent. Increasingly, Hindus have challenged the accuracy and authenticity of Western accounts, questioning the dominance of Christian or Western categories of analysis, the preoccupation with a distant past remote from contemporary experience and the legacy of colonial attitudes about ‘race’. Moreover, Hindus have come to play a leading part in the study of their own religion in academia worldwide as over time approaches from sociology and anthropology have come to the fore and more attention has been paid to aspects of diversity including vernacular texts, Goddess worship and folk traditions alongside emerging issues such as ecology and the environment and gender and sexuality. Nevertheless, there remain sensitivities about the representation of Hinduism, especially any possible negative implications of the selection and interpretation of material. This is perhaps even more acute in the case of religious education where members of the Hindu community may have certain expectations of the subject and the place of Hinduism within the curriculum.
This essay has only been able to outline some features and aspects of what might be labelled Hinduism. When seeking to learn more, it is important to use a variety of sources – academic texts, texts by those who identify as Hindus, and actually meeting Hindu adherents in person. Academic texts may arise from different disciplines – some may focus on ancient sacred texts, or historical periods, and others on sociological and ethnographic study of contemporary people. It is important to ask – particularly of random internet sources, but the same applies to books whether by academics or adherents, and to this essay – who wrote this and why, and whether they are likely to be reliable. They may, for example, be reliable about one Hindu group, but unrepresentative of others. You will gradually build up your own provisional picture of Hinduism.
In teaching Hinduism, it is also important to be clear about why you are doing it and what you wish to achieve. There are now many resources to help, appropriate to different ages of pupils, but the same questions need to be asked about the reliability and representative nature of resources for children and young people as are asked about resources for adults. For example, does the book present the Hindu tradition using the model of Christianity (as monotheistic really, with the Bhagavad-Gita as the Hindu Bible)? Does it presume that all Hindus subscribe to the neo-Vedantic view that all religions lead to the same goal in the end – which would make it hard to understand items in the news about tensions between Hindus and Muslims over the sites of mosques and temples? Does it suggest that Hindus consider Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs to be Hindus too, despite the offence this may cause to some?