Reincarnation, a New Age fad? (was: Gymnosophists)

zydenbos at zydenbos at
Thu May 9 02:19:11 UTC 1996

Replies to msg 07 May 96: indology at (y.r.rani at

 yrru> in this
 yrru> deconstructed world individuals can absorb and infuse
 yrru> religious teaching
 yrru> from various sources into their philosophy of life,
 yrru> without a rupture.

We need not even bring in deconstruction. Things seem to have started with
Kalanos, haven't they?

 yrru> There are serious scholars, historical and contemporary,
 yrru> who have
 yrru> internalized the teachings that they study in an academic
 yrru> setting.  [...]
 yrru> I also find it odd that many
 yrru> scholars at traditional Western academic institutions, who
 yrru> do have personal
 yrru> beliefs centered in or associated with Eastern religions,
 yrru> often feel
 yrru> compelled to hide that fact, and not make it known to
 yrru> their Asian Studies
 yrru> colleagues, primarily  because they are afraid of
 yrru> ridicule.  [...]
 yrru> Why is it that there are so many scholars who do not come
 yrru> out of the
 yrru> spiritual closet?  Why is it also that many people who
 yrru> study Indology,
 yrru> etc., look at religion under a microscope and often
 yrru> disparage those who see
 yrru> a broader application of the ideas in their lives?

I am reminded of the late Prof. Jan Gonda. If a student showed too great a
proclivity towards what Yvette Rosser describes here, he would comment that
that person was "verloren voor de wetenschap" ("lost to scholarship").

But I believe it is fair to note that there are good reasons for the kind of
skepticism which an important scholar like Gonda (and so many others)
expressed. Even a highly subtle thinker like C.G. Jung, whose admiration and
sympathy for the East are well known, has explicitly expressed his skepticism
in more than one of his writings. I believe there are two categories of reasons
for being skeptical.

One is the Jungian type of reason: Westerners generally are exposed to (for
instance) Indian thought at a later age, long after their formative childhood
years, and the sa.mskaaras (we are among Indologists, so I think I can use this
term here) which are already there are so well entrenched that there is a
likelihood that the new ideas are tragically misunderstood and may actually
cause more harm than good to the individual. (Cf. what he has to say about yoga
and Indian meditative techniques.) He does not belittle Asian religious thought
at all; quite the contrary. He believed that practically every Westerner is
incapable of grasping and integrating such thought in a sufficiently profound
and wholesome manner.

I feel he has a point, when I consider the kind of flimsy, superficial
syncretism that characterizes much of the New Age scene: I find it distressing
that so many people take _The Tao of Physics_ so seriously.

Gonda's kind of skepticism seems the result of a type of understanding of what
Indology should be: solid historical philology. Philology _is_ important; is
essential, in fact. But if we stop there, we achieve little more than a kind of
deconstruction: the history of the name 'Vishnu' is interesting, but does not
really tell us what Vishnu is, or why certain people feel Vishnu is the supreme
lord. And just like deconstructionalism, such an attitude is in a way highly
destructive and leads to general cynicism.

What we need is an attitude in the West that treats varieties of Indian
religious thought as genuine theological alternatives to what we traditionally
have had in the West. (This nice phrasing is not by me, but by an American
colleague I met in Mysore years ago.) But this kind of thinking does need a
solid philological footing -- otherwise we don't know what we are talking

When that level of seriousness is reached, but _only_ then (as I think some
have reached it), then a personal commitment to such a religious faith, also on
the part of a Western-born scholar, should be acceptable. Are theology
departments not full of committed Christians, some of them also of Asian

Robert Zydenbos
Internet: zydenbos at

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