Axel Michaels edited book "The Pandit"

George Hart ghart at SOCRATES.BERKELEY.EDU
Tue Oct 30 10:36:08 EST 2001

Dear Prof. Michaels,

I do agree that it is unfair to bandy terms like racism and casteism,
and I apologize.  Of course, I did not mean to use the terms
personally -- indeed, I am quite aware that the scholars represented
in your book are all excellent.  Sadly, the history of Indological
studies has, for historical reasons, been dominated by a kind of
strange bias that has had quite noxious effects, one of which has
been to feed the causes of Hindu extremism, of casteism, and of the
myth that Brahmins, as the "scholars" of India, are somehow superior
intellectually and culturally (and even racially) to others.  This
is, purely and simply, a construction, fed by Western biases and by
the fact that the great majority of Western scholars have gotten
their understanding of traditional India from Brahmins.  I myself
have a pretty good Sanskrit basis -- I spoke Sanskrit with several
pandits in Madras for a year, reading alankaara and tarka texts, and
I have even written a Sanskrit primer, for which I wrote the Sanskrit
sentences.  I have lived in a Tamil milieu for 35 years (my wife is
from Madurai), and I know the culture quite well.

In any case, I do apologize -- I did not wish to brand anyone with
ignominious epithets; rather I wanted to point to biases in the field
(which I still feel are there).  I would like to suggest that it
would be useful to take a look at traditional Indian scholarship from
a non-Brahmin perspective, including both high and low castes.  Such
a book would profoundly surprise many people.

As an addendum, I would remark the following: 1. Brahmins in South
India are less than 3% of the population; 2. Kalidasa, from his name,
must have been a Sudra (and how about Sudraka and the Suutas and
Magadhas who were bards and recited the epics); 3. In many
non-Brahmin caste groups of Tamil Nadu, some of them quite low, there
are extraordinarily rich non-Brahmin traditions that are quite as
rich as anything the Brahmins have; 4. One of the most learned groups
I have encountered is a group of low-caste people that performs
villuppaattu -- they use both Tamil and Telugu, and have broad
learning in Hindu things that few if any Brahmins have.  I could go
on and on.  Suffice it to say that we should become aware that
Brahmins represent only one of many important and central learning
traditions of India.  The days when we thought we could understand
traditional India by looking at the Vedic and other Brahmanical
traditions are, in my view, long gone. George Hart

PS You say that topics like caste and bias should not be considered
in this group.  I must profoundly and respectfully disagree.  It is
my belief and experience that the field of Indology is riddled with
biases and inaccurate ideas.  These DO reflect racist and caste views
of the past.  There is no way around this.  In my view, it is
critically important to the field that we do a better job of
confronting these biases.  One of the ways we can do that is to
listen to each other and to be open and frank.  The fact that we
inherit a tradition that is biased does not reflect on any of us
personally.  Nor does it make books such as the one you edited any
less valuable.  It DOES mean that we all need to see such things in a
much wider context.  Your title does not give that context, and that
sparked my criticism.  I look forward to reading the book -- and,
again, I extend my apologies, as I did not mean to impugn anyone's
scholarship or motives, which, I realize, are of the highest order.

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