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Classics and the Idea of India

Dorothy Figueira

A manuscript illustration (18th c.?) of the Battle of Kurukshetra, fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, recorded in the Mahabharata. | Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

How do we teach the classics of the Indian tradition today? The classroom is neither isolated nor is it insulated from the outside world. Politics affects what we do, whether we are situated where I am speaking in the US or where my readers may find themselves in India. Although I will be primarily addressing the idea of India as it is currently configured in the American educational system, I feel that several of the points I raise are relevant also to the Indian classroom.

People who have heard me speak or read my work on the developments in the institutionalization of Indian Studies in the US may be familiar with this anecdote with which I wish to begin this discussion. When I was an undergraduate almost 50 years ago in a small upstate New York women’s college, I could study India in seven different departments: geography, religion, classics (where someone could do some Sanskrit), history, art history, anthropology or music. Why there was even someone on the faculty who was a key investigator at Mohenjo Daro! Now in the large public university where I presently teach, in a state with a considerable Indian population, India exists exclusively in the English Department in the form of English-language authors of Indian extraction. Gone are the days of India specialists teaching India in various departments, gone are the days of Indian language instruction being available in large land-grant universities throughout the American Midwest. Gone are the days when an undergraduate can learn anything real about India in many large universities in the US. Gone are the days when an undergraduate might read Sakuntala. She has been replaced by Jhumpa Lahiri. Now, I like Jhumpa Lahiri as much as the next person does. But she does not teach me anything important about India. She teaches me about her experiences as a second-generation American of Indian descent. She is a good immigrant voice. She should not replace other Indian voices. She should not replace the classics of the Indian tradition. But she does and this is the sad story that I now will relate — how India went from being a topic of inquiry in itself to its present commodification in American universities today. To understand the place of Indian cultural products in the US today, we must first examine the role of identity studies in American academia.

In the late 70’s, factions within the American university community began to view literature as an outmoded form of cultural capital belonging to the bourgeoisie.1 An important stage in this process of radicalization involved the rejection of the canon of dead white males in favor of what might be termed the cultural studies model. But, it soon became apparent that dismantling the literary canon often had less to do with installing a more immediate and less conservative hierarchical format and more to do with establishing a new authority, grounded in identifying with and marketing marginalized populations. In the case of American universities, these commodity populations were first packaged and marketed under the rubric of identity studies.

The 70s in the States also saw the emergence of Black Studies and Women’s Studies programs, devised to represent the experience and cultural production of then underrepresented blacks and women in academia. One important thing to note is that these programs were usually staffed with African-Americans and women, respectively. The representation of underrepresented groups expanded over time to include other minorities (Hispanics, Native-American) and hyphenated ethnicities (Asian-Americans). Identity Studies was thus born as a discipline. It was subsequently institutionalized as multiculturalism (MC) and was supported by a theoretical superstructure devised to justify its inclusion. MC thus entered the curriculum in the United States as a bureaucratic structure purporting to foster minority rights. It claimed to open the canon and the university up to subalterns, exiles, and others. Ideally, it sought to facilitate canonical (i.e. dead white male authors) being supplanted in the curricula by authors from underrepresented groups (always writing in English). As a corollary benefit, dead-wood white male professors would ideally be supplanted by women and minorities in the classroom. This latter goal succeeded in the hiring of a significant number of white women and privileged elites from Africa and Asia (model minorities). It succeeded to an incredibly lesser degree in the recruitment of traditional American minorities, such as Blacks and Hispanics. Nevertheless, MC claimed success in re-envisioning the world from a decolonizing and anti-racist perspective.

Although MC theoretically claimed to attack Euro-centrism, a number of scholars were not convinced. Some found it questionable that MC assumed that “certain people” might do well in academia studying themselves rather than studying cultures that were not their own “heritage”, or working in fields where they were truly under-represented (such as the hard sciences). By encouraging traditional American minority students to study themselves, MC was seen by some as contributing to their further balkanization in American universities, a process that, since the inception of Affirmative Action in the 1970s, was well under way. Minorities could enter American2 academia, but were managed, that is, directed toward fields that showcased their ethnicity, so universities could use one minority placement to make two political statements: Universities could show their commitment both to diversity hiring as well as flaunt their promotion of minority studies.

Acknowledging difference was all that mattered. Actually learning about the foreign cultures from which these groups might spring or their languages was not necessary because studying their victimization (real and imagined) in American society took precedence. MC also took for granted that minority and hyphenated Americans should study themselves and that beneath their differences there were some underlying values that brought them together. As a theory of diversity, MC presupposed and required the notion of the assimilationist “common” culture and fostered a social order founded on the principle of unity in multiplicity3. The increased lack of interest in the world fostered by such a pedagogy, needless to say, fit well with the general dumbing down of American university curricula. It fed into the good old American exceptionalism and triumphalism.

What is little acknowledged by higher education management wonks is how the institutionalization of MC within US academia replicated that of the corporate-level structures, since universities are also corporations4. We can, therefore, compare multicultural educational practices to corporate diversity management initiatives that derive from the assumption that racially and ethnically diverse groups need to be controlled in ways to contain conflict and fortify power relations.5 While purportedly offering representation of neglected groups. MC just provided an illusion of liberal reform that did not, in fact, exist.

Postcolonialism (PC), like MC, also claimed to engage the Other. It shared with MC many of the same deficiencies and brought its own set of critical problems. PC seemed to be more concerned with the location of the theorist than the location of the term “postcoloniality”, 6 its a-historicity, and its universalizing deployments.7 Postcolonial theory never seemed to define what was actually being done with which body of works. No matter. Essentialism beset discussions of postcoloniality from its arrival on the critical scene in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and the cottage industry in the postcolonial theory that it spawned. As time went on, it seemed that no society could not be deemed postcolonial. The important thing to note is that postcolonial criticism (just like MC) also did not demand knowledge of languages beyond English, although French texts were sometimes included. So those classes on Indian languages taught in a number of large American universities, a course on Tamil taught to 3 students, could now be replaced by a class on the Indian short story taught in the English Department to 100 students. From the point of view of the administration (ofttimes made up of rather culturally deficient scientists), India was still taught, but now with a higher enrollment and more tuition money was coming into the coffers. That India per se was not being taught did not matter since (once again) representation was what counted, not the nature or logic of that representation.

The postcolonial archive differed from what might have been the canon in a more general literature course, where India might have been represented by excerpts from the Panchatantra or an episode from the Mahabharata. Now the canon dealing with India consisted of a handful of endlessly recycled articles by a small group of theorists and a limited body of English published texts, usually Kipling again and maybe one of Spivak’s translations of Mahashweta Devi, as if these authors were totally representative of India or even its postcolonial situation. Vernacular texts that might not deal with postcolonial theory’s focus on colonial oppression did not enter the discussion. The primary function of India in postcolonial analyses resided in critical theorizing. In fact, the critic’s location and the master narrative of victimization (a fetish borrowed from MC) often totally eclipsed the national historical situation and exegetical context of any text analyzed. Meanwhile the postcolonial critic divided history into manageable and isolated segments, while at the same time arguing against the false homogenization of Orientalist projects.8 It did not matter if this Indian Other risked being indiscriminately leveled out among various competing Others.

These theories thus enabled individuals, who are truly cut off from any effective social action, yet buoyed by their security as academic professionals, to claim solidarity with the disenfranchised, rebrand themselves, and propagate the illusion of effective intervention in real time and in the real world. This alienation from real powerlessness (like the academic Marxist’s guilt vis à vis the worker) can then be compensated for by a posture of powerlessness vis à vis representation. The result of such a critical stance is that it allows a privileged class of academics the possibility of forging a wide-ranging identification with the marginalized Other. At work here was the age-old problem of the engaged intellectual and the pretense that academic criticism can function as a political act. It is a prime example of how critics attempt to displace “textual culture” with “activist culture,” as Aijaz Ahmad presciently noted.9 Regardless of their own socio-economic status and privileges, the postcolonial critic (like the multicultural critic before him/her) speaks as/for minorities, their under-representation, and their victimization. They function, as Deepika Bahri has noted, as “victims in proxy”.10 The problem was that Indians were not minorities in America; they were immigrants and their children, who might be largely ignorant of the parents’ birth culture, were American enough to buy into the idea of studying themselves and to relish the exceptional status that this positionality afforded them.

So, India went from being studied for itself, its bhasyas, and its history; it now appears in US curricula under the rubrics of MC, PC and most recently WL, another project designed to include non-Western literatures and taught by scholars trained primarily in English Literature. These rebrandings happened much to the amazement of comparatists among us who worked in Asian languages and literatures all along. In this format, the West still interprets the rest. The above cited pedagogies, all claiming to be bringing the literatures and cultural productions from the margins to the center, really just seem to allow critics from the center and scholars of English-language literatures (both in the East and West) to co-opt the margins.

The practical reason for all this packaging of the Indian Other, whether it be a newly-minted WL departments, or Multicultural and Postcolonial Studies programs, or even the even newer Transnational Literature programs, is obvious: all these “specializations” are relatively easy. They do not involve in-depth knowledge of India or demand learning Indian languages, skills that have fallen by the wayside among American students. The inability to train students in languages and literatures derives from a decline in learning and standards dating from the 60s. The pedagogical response to these lower standards is to universalize them.11 Under these pedagogies, the foreign Other, India in this instance, can preserve its own heritage as long as that heritage speaks English,12 as Vijay Prashad has noted. Such pedagogies also feed American isolationism. On an intellectual level, they vitiate the need in a humanistic training to seek to engage alterity or to practice hermeneutical inquiry. You can engage the Other on the cheap; you do not risk having to have any of your ways of thinking challenged.

It offers in exchange a far more prosaic vision of the world. Studying India in this format confirms the hegemon status usually accorded to English departments in American universities. Since they now teach the world in translation and thus have the first say in how the humanities curriculum should be organized. They appropriate authors and works from other literatures and disciplines rather than defer to the general expertise of other scholars. By lifting subjects and authors from other fields in which they are not themselves experts (philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc.), English departments shove aside experts and cultural theory in this process of colonization.

A substantive course on India can now be replaced with fad courses (Dalit Cinema, for example) and these can be taught by a peon class of under-educated graduate students. Such reduction in quality and competence plays into the hands of lazy administrators who desire to promote themselves by cutting costs and dealing exclusively with cheaper faculty. With such curricula in place, administrators can placate the identity politics of their institutions without doing anything substantive to combat persistent racial and gender inequities. English professors and English departments thus become the custodians of “international” “cross-cultural” and “worldly” research and teaching.

In Otherwise Occupied, I made the case that all these academic theories and pedagogies of the Other were constructed and are used in the United States to undermine Affirmative Action by influencing institutional policies for recruitment. Theoretical constructions of the Other proliferated in direct proportion to the failure of statistical evidence to support the success claims of institutional diversity. To once again quote Aijaz Ahmad13, under the guise of studying colonialisms of the past we facilitate imperialisms of the present. American WL claims to be a democratizing pedagogy because it does not demand the learning foreign languages. So, as a first generation American of Hispanic descent, I can and have been accused of being an elitist because I studied Sanskrit. But I ask you, what is more exclusionary and elitist than practicing a brand of criticism that claims to champion a voiceless and under-represented world but does so only in the English language by people trained in English literature? Since when does the imposition of Western ways of thinking on the non-Western world make us non-elite and democratic? It does not. But what I find even more astonishing is how this process of the American corporate university’s commodification of India has been wonderfully abetted by the Indian diasporic community.

I thank my lucky stars that, as a student, I transitioned from the History of Religions to Comparative Literature which has been a safe haven for me for the past 30 years since it has not been embroiled in the kerfluffle that have beset the practice of Indology in the United States. Why, I have been able to sail safely through the shoals of the politization of Religious Studies, even as one of “Wendy’s children” (the reference here is to the perceived problems posed by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s work, her perceived negative depiction of things Indian, and the perceived deleterious effect perpetuated on the world by her students) because I taught Comparative Literature. In recent decades, the middle-class professional Indian diaspora in the US and the Sangh Parivar have been quite active in processing their “anxieties and concerns about how India is presented within American education.”14 The Indian diaspora in the US, the most educated immigrant community in the history of US immigration and the ethnic group that pays the highest percentage of taxes, has militated to exert supervision over the field of Indian Studies. There have been demands from diaspora groups in the US that call for a “knowledgeable diaspora evaluation and monitoring committee to oversee what goes on in universities courses and departments that teach India.”15 It is asserted that such oversight should not be left up to the oversight of the universities or American-based scholars, but should be assessed by diaspora communities. In short, the Indian diaspora in the US has been calling for the privileged ownership of knowledge about India and its dissemination. It presupposes that “scholars should work for the diaspora and submit their research in the discipline to the diaspora’s interests in presenting India as a commodity to the American public.”16

Amartya Sen has described this situation as an attempt to “miniaturize the broad idea of a large India – proud of its heterodox past and its pluralist present – and to replace it by the stamp of a small India, bundled around a drastically downsized vision of Hinduism.”17 From the ideological perspective, he outlines a process very much like what I have just described from a pedagogical perspective. Both the commodification of India in literature pedagogy on US campuses and the militancy of the diaspora with regard to the teaching of Indian religions seek to achieve the same end: the levelling out, simplification, and diminishing of what we learn about India. Both “reform” projects stem from a political agenda: In the case of post-structural literary pedagogy, we find a cooptation of the Indian Other under the guise of inclusion; in the diaspora militancy we have the installation of a specifically sanctioned version of India, to the exclusion/erasure of the other Indias. The stakes are high. Publishers are wary of publishing books that challenge or problematize this vision of India, out of fear of having their offices vandalized, their books shredded, and their authors threatened. The Kurukshetra has shifted its location and the battlefield has even moved to California, where concerted attempts were made to revise history textbooks published and taught in America, demanding the excision of any mention of caste, Untouchability, or the condition of women in India.

Where does this scenario place a text such as Sakuntala? In a world literature class, India is represented either by Kipling’s Kim (not the real India, of course, but the India through the lens of English literature) or Jhumpa Lahiri, the India of the immigrant’s imaginaire, or even worse, India is represented by the “pity porn” of books such as Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger or more recently, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning. I might teach the Ramayana in a class on comparative epic, but is it worth the risk of being subjected to pressure by my students (or their parents) not to teach it as literature but rather as an historical text to be understood literally? Placing the Ramayana in its historical context or teaching it as a work of fiction created by human authors living at various times and showing how the human imagination can transform an historical period into something else might cause me real problems in the fragile university environment in which we now live in the States. Teaching a literary text as revealing history rather than as history can have grave consequences. Maybe, I will not teach Ramayana and just have the students read the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Odyssey? The ability of scholars who have studied something to be allowed to teach their expertise may well be a luxury of the past. With identity politics, the positionality of the interpreter now counts more than expertise. Being the child of Indian immigrants, the grandchild of Indian immigrants, or even the white English professor dating or married to an Indian immigrant rebrands one as an expert or an Indologist! This is the same situation of positionality, nurtured by MC and postcolonial criticism, where being a member of a given group affords one the right to claim some genetically-based expertise. This is racist, of course, but no one cares. University identity politics combines with a concerted effort on the part of the diaspora community to dictate what one studies about India, who gets to teach India, and what one needs to teach, certainly not the wrong India. There is pressure on the part of the diaspora community to teach India from a faith-based perspective, clearly not the mission of a liberal education. Last week, in my undergraduate course on the Self, a course that will explore St Augustine, Montaigne, Rousseau, Nabokov alongside the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the Gita and Buddhist scripture, I found myself teaching the Purusha sukta and comparing it to other myths of creation. I am always careful regarding religious sensibilities when I read religious texts as literature. But this year, for the first time, the discussion of Purusha sukta gave me pause. But I might be just as cautious were I to introduce students to Sanskrit kavya, discuss love poetry, or even teach Sakuntala. Being seen to disrespect Hinduism by teaching Indian classical literature, given my very positionality, or being accused of “sexualizing” Sanskrit poetry is not something I wish to bring upon myself. So, under such conditions, what can be the fate of teaching the literary classics of the Indian tradition in the American Academy? If we cannot critically approach Sanskrit texts but only celebrate them as we do when we equate them with identity or heritage, then these texts become fossilized objects, rather than living texts for reading, discussion, and delectation.

1. Excerpts of this analysis of MC, PC and WL will appear in “Comparative Literature in the US: Can this marriage be Saved?” In Eugene Eoyang, Gang Zhou, and Jonathan Hart Comparative Literature Around the World: Global Proactice. Paris:Champion, 2021, pp. 23-43.
2. Throughout this essay, I use the term “American” to denote the US experience of these trends.
3. Epiphanio San Juan, Hegemony and Strategies of Transgression: Essays in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1995, p. 223.
4. Wahneema Lubiano, “Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor: Multiculturalism and State Narratives”, in Avery F. Gordon and Christopher Newfield, eds., Mapping Multiculturalism, op. cit., p. 70.
5. In fact, David Rieff has argued, the treasured catchphrases of multiculturalism – “cultural diversity”, “differences”, the need to “do away with boundaries” – resemble the stock phrases of the modern corporation: “product diversification”, “the global world”, and the “boundary-less company”, Russell Jacoby, “The Myth of Multiculturalism”, New Left Review, vol. 208, 1994, p. 123.
6. Its practitioners never formed a consensus as to what constituted reading a text from a postcolonial perspective or what differentiated a postcolonial text from a non-postcolonial text.
7. Ella Shohat, “Notes on the Post-Colonial,” in Social Text, vol. 31/32, 1992, p. 99.
8. Deepika Bahri, “Once More with Feeling: What is Postcolonialism?”, in Ariel, vol. 26, 1995, p. 52.
9. Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, London, Verso, 1992, p. 1.
10. Deepika Bahri, “Once More with Feeling: What is Postcolonialism?”, op. cit., p. 73.
11. Personal communication with Gerald Gillespie, Emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.
12. Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 112.
13. Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, London, Verso, 1992, p. 222.
14. See Paul B. Courtright “Speaking about, for, to, Against, and with Hindus: Scholars and Practitioners in the Diasporic Postcolonial Moment” in Wendy Doniger and Martha C Nussbaum, Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right. New York: Oxford 2015, p. 300.
15. Rajiv Malhotra, “Does South Asian Studies Understand India?” htip://rediii.comllnews/2003/dec08rajiv.htm. Accessed Nov 7, 2005, cited in Wendy Doniger, “The Fight for the History of Hinduism in the Academy” in Doniger and Nussbaum, p. 311.
16. Courtright, op. cit., p.303.
17. Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writing on Indian History, Culture and Identity, Gordonsville FSG, 2005, p. 72, cited in Doniger, op. cit., p. 311 .

Dorothy Figueira is professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia, USA. She is also the author of Translating the Orient (1991), The Exotic: A Decadent Quest (1994), Aryans, Jews and Brahmins (2002), and Otherwise Occupied: Theories and Pedagogies of Alterity (2008).