Clarification on Issue of Vedic Studies at Columbia University

Tue Nov 16 07:11:08 UTC 1993

A Clarification on the issue of Vedic and Indic Studies

Given the discussion that my innocuous query on Vedic scholars appears to have generated, I do wish to clarify certain issues and lay out the parameters of the discussion, the way I see it.

At the outset, it should be clear that the issue I raised was a general one which had more to do with the problem of Orientalism in "Indic studies" than with the issue of Columbia University's proposed centre on Vedic studies. I am actually not very fami
liar with the content of discussions between the Hinduja Foundation and Columbia University and thank Prof. Hawley and David Magier  for clarifying where things stand. 

I am actually not directly involved in the discussion that some students and faculty members are carrying out on the whole issue either, but felt it was a useful context within which to articulate something which I have felt for a long time, namely the e
xcessive attention paid, within "Indic studies", to religion. The way the issue presents itself is disarmingly straightforward: why do we assume that knowledge of Indian religion renders us better equipped to understand and deal with the problems of cont
emporary India any more than British religion helps us understand the problems of Britain? In every other "area studies" field, especially "Western" areas, the study of philosophy, politics, sociology, anthropology, economics, philology, linguistics, lit
erature, culture, etc. is considered far more important than religion. Hardly anyone will dispute that the point of all academic work on India is to reach a better understanding of the nature of the problems confronting Indian society today so as to cont
ribute towards the solution of those problems. Of course, solutions have a theoretical and a practical side but what is of relevance here is the weakness of Indian theory at this time. You can have a Prime Minister who proves his "Indianness" by consulti
ng an astrologer about the "auspicious time" to visit Bombay after January's communal pogroms but when it comes to problems of the polity, problems of the economy, he holds up the World Bank or South Korea as theoretical guides! This is a failing of Indi
an theory and it is a failing of Indian philosophy. 

The ancient Indians, the Rig Vedic Indians and others gave rise to theories and solutions based on their own conditions. Philosophy, or Darshan, was for them something which lit a path, something which elaborated what relations human beings should have w
ith each other, what relations human beings should have with nature. Are Indian philosophers today providing answers to us about what those relations should be? Darshan, to be true to itself, has to reveal the underlying relationship between human beings
 and nature and between humans themselves. It has to be responsible to both society and nature, without which there can be no human beings. Is Indian Philosophy, the way it is taught in India and abroad, equipping young philosophers to actually deal with
 these problems? Do they begin with things and phenomena coming out of today's India or are they merely dealing with the problems of a discourse, a "field" established by Colebrooke? After all, the conflation of religion and philosophy that he effected h
as proved remarkably enduring. It has had a surprisingly long innings despite attempts by various philosophers (eg. Prof. Daya Krishna from Jaipur and the late Prof. Matilal from Oxford) to argue for a recovery of the philosophical from the religious/mys
tical and for a clear demarcation between the two. Indian Philosophy, which is something which belongs to an entire people, is forced into a strait-jacket. To this day, Indian Philosophy is equated with Hinduism, the Vedas - one of the earliest philosoph
ical works of humankind - are called "Hindu", and countless other impediments are placed in the way of our philosophy being able to flower. Often, the biggest fight one has to wage (and those of you who teach Indian philosophy know this) is to establish 
that Indian Philosophy EXISTS, that it is living, that it is developing!

Often, however, when the possibility of Indian PHILOSOPHY is accepted, it is subjected to the imposition of an artificial dichotomy, viz. that between idealism and materialism. Indian philosophy has been described by all and sundry (from Colebrooke et. a
l. through to Max Mueller to Radhakrishnan, Dasgupta, Hiriyanna and many others, especially modern scholars) to be strictly idealistic. Even those who wrote "left" critiques of this dominant view (eg. D.P. Chattopadhyaya, Sardesai etc.) never challenged 
the basic description of Indian Philosophy as religious, idealistic and spiritual. Finally, this "idealist" Indian philosophy is said to have reached its highest development in the Vedanta, and that too Sankara's Vedanta. 

Radhakrishnan can therefore impose on the "Nasadiya" (RV, X, 129 (6))

["...But, after all, who knows, and who can say,
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves were later than creation,
So who knows truly whence it has arisen?]

the interpretation that it "makes nature and spirit both aspects of the one Absolute ... According to this account the steps of creation, when translated into modern terms, are: (1) the Highest Absolute; (2) the bare self-consciousness, I am I; (3) the l
imit of self-consciousness in the form of another..."

Is modern Vedic Studies going to be serious about contributing to the development of Indian philosophy? Are the modern Vedic scholars prepared to problematise interpretations such as those of Max Mueller and Radhakrishan? Are they going to tell us why th
e Vedic Indians produced literature and philosophy of the kind they did? Will Indic studies provide us with a modern historiography of the development of Indian philosophy and thought? What were the philosophical problems that the Rig Vedic Indians solve
d and what did they not solve? At each stage in the development of Indian philosophy these questions have to be posed. What was the socio-economic millieu in which the Vedantists appeared? The Bhaktas and Sufis? Dara Shikoh, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Allama
 Iqbal? What bearing did society have on their philosophy and vice-versa? A sober evaluation has to be made because modern Indian philosophy and theory has to draw, in equal measure, from its tradition and from the conditions of modern India. And the tra
dition of Indian philosophy is much more than some "mysticism" or religion.

The study of the Vedas is a laudable and extremely important enterprise but first of all the Vedas have to be rescued from the clutches of the Orientalist, the priest and the politician. Whatever the three may produce, it is certainly not philosophy and 
theory. One of my biggest complaints (and, as you can see from the above, I have many!) is that progressive scholars looked at the Vedas (and indeed much of Indian philosophy) with disdain - as something "mystical" and "other-worldy" - as something irrel
evant, and this has allowed politicians with decidedly malicious intentions to abuse and destroy a valuable part of our heritage. The Belgian Koenrad Elst is one such personality to whom all of you have been exposed and it is important that we vigorously
 defend Indian thought, Indian philosophy from becoming an appendage to the political campaigns of the BJP and Congress (I).

I don't know if all the reasons why the Centre for Vedic Studies is being established are necessarily the same as I have sought to articulate above, but in any event, the Hinduja Foundation and Columbia University, particularly the Southern Asian Institu
te and its director, Prof. Jack Hawley, can only be commended for creating the potential for a lot of exciting and important scholarly work to take place. One can only wish such a project well and hope that it breaks new ground. South Asian studies is so
rely in need of a shot in the arm.

V. Siddharth
Lecturer in Economics,
New York University
siddharthv at

P.S. I am helping to organise an important conference at Columbia University on December 4th on "India one year after Ayodhya: Perpsectives on Democratic Renewal."  On December 5th,  we are organising a concert featuring the vocalist Smt. Lakshmi Shankar
  in order to draw attention to the demand that those who are organising and inciting acts of communal violence should be brought to justice. If you would like additional details, please contact me.

When all is said and done, Narasimha Rao and L.K. Advani's adherence to so-called Indian values did not go so far as to ensure that all Indians, especially those of the Muslim faith, were given the protection to which they were entitled under law. Is thi
s not a problem for our Vedic scholars? Is this not a problem for Indian philosophy?

> From THRASHER at MAIL.LOC.GOV 16 1993 Nov GMT 15:37:15
Date: 16 Nov 1993 15:37:15 GMT

          The word Aralikatti means a platform with Arali tree.  I have not 
          seen Badami Cave.  Arali  tree  is worshipped by  women  to  have 
          children.  Couple  will install Stone serpents to  worship around 
          the bottom of this tree (sometimes 2 trees).  Katti 
          Katte, the platform, is used   in small towns to settle disputes, 
          jave meetings, etc.    Shantha                                    

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