Sunday, January 18, 2015

Confusion of Names Spawns a New Field of Hindu Studies in the West

 Hinduism: Religion or Not?

“What‟s in a name?” asks an old saying, but the notion that a name is not necessarily synonymous with an identity has not stopped the western scholars of India initially from engaging in lengthy debates regarding the names given to particular peoples or religious practices. While naming “races”  of peoples of India, and  connecting the races to languages of India, occupied much of the early discourse on Indian ethnic identity, the current academic discourse centers on the use of the term Hindu,” an umbrella term meant to identify and group the peoples associated with the indigenous religious and cultural systems of India. The conversation about the use of this term and what the term represents takes up more space in post- colonial studies than any other issue related to India or Indian history, culture, and identity.

The debate about how to classify the religion(s) of India is currently discussed without much agreement among scholars, leading to a rift; there are those who argue that Hinduism” appropriately identifies an indigenous Indian socio-religious and cultural sphere, and there are those who argue that the purported Hindu” identity is nothing more than a construct, existing only in the imagination of the West, conveniently but erroneously grouping a wide diversity of beliefs, practices, and traditions into a single, supposed entity. The subject of whether or not the term Hinduism legitimately refers to a religion has raged in Western academia for the last decade and continues to inspire publications. 

Several scholars had demonstrated the use of the term Hinduism historically in India to denote religion of India, as well as contradicted superfluous arguments by several scholars of Hinduism, who argue Hinduism is a colonial construct. Scholars argue that Hinduism was known by that name as early as fifth century, which was used consistently to refer to the religious practice consistently until twelfth century. Then it is not hard to imagine what may have happened since twelfth century, and how regional traditions of Hindu religious practice become the norm, although distinct, but not different from Hinduism of earlier centuries. The next five hundred years is a period of religious discrimination and persecution in India. Temples were destroyed, festivals were banned, large gatherings such as Kumbhmela, and pilgrimages were also banned. So the practice of pan Indian Hinduism gives way to local and regional practices, due to lack of facility to connect widely. It was no surprise that by the time British arrived in India in the seventeenth century, Hinduism, might have looked like Hinduisms, with distinct practices in each region of India. It was no wonder the colonial views of Hinduism attempted understanding the many practices distinct in some aspects and similar in other aspects, and also the textual background of Hinduism.

Ancient sources of India, especially classical texts refer to religion as Dharma, and Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, which means eternal faith. However, Hinduism is consistently referred by the name 'Hinduism,' since the early fourth century. However that did not stop scholars from suggesting that Sanatana Dharma was different from Hinduism without any substantial evidence, and recently a new field of study evolved in the western academia based on the argument that Hinduism is not a religion, but a colonial construct. All this because Hinduism is not referred in the classical texts by that name, but only as Sanatana Dharma. Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma, name is only secondary matter in India. The religion is eternal and its practice is established. 

Indeed, the issue of name does not seem to be a central issue in India. Some children are not given a name until they are admitted into school, and even after that, they are referred to by numerous names. The child is then called by his or her given name in school and in other official settings but continues to be called by his/her various nicknames in familiar and informal environments. This does in fact cause some confusion but does not do great damage to either the child or those that refer to the child by these many names. In fact, the more popular one is the more names one acquires, which is also true of gods, goddesses, and religions in India. The exercise in this book seems to me to be one such confusion of names rather than any major issue with regard to Hinduism and its practice in India. 

India's own indifference to its historical tradition is partly to blame for this state of things.  Academic study of Hinduism in India is limited to a handful of universities which is also cited as one of the reasons by the Hinduism deniers as evidence of its non-existence as a religion in India. Under the garb of secularism successive governments in India since 1947 ignored Hinduism, while supporting traditions labeled as minority faiths such as Islam, and others with funds as well as permitting academic study in the universities. It might seem strange that universities would offer academic study of several faiths, but not Hinduism. It could only be hoped that academic study of Hinduism would be offered in the Universities in India soon. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Footnote Oh Footnote: The Oasis of Academic Life

Academic Life as a Series of Footnotes

I spent my graduate school years learning to footnote scholarly works in my research papers. Footnotes determined how thoroughly researched, and well written my paper was. I have practiced footnoting so much that it almost became impossible to write without footnotes. Any regular writing without using footnotes was not seen as deserving attention during this stage of my academic evolution. The only writing that counted as writing was academic writing with authoritative use of footnotes. As graduate students we reveled in reading each other papers. My friends and I compared and read each other's papers with admiration for use of footnotes. See Dr. Parakala's notes on footnotes for an examination of academic's passion for footnotes (

Little did I know this is the beginning of academic life which is recorded in a series of footnotes. As noted by one of my fellow historians footnotes is central to academic life ( Citing and adding footnotes to research papers is only the beginning, the career progresses with accumulating more and more footnotes for oneself. The more footnotes one acquires the more well known a scholar one becomes. 

Digital history is the new academic frontier. Digital humanities projects are encouraging historians to adopt to the digital platform, and offer classes with digital content. Almost all the historians I know, including me, have blogs, digital classrooms, and are in the process of developing Apps for history projects. Social media, especially twitter presence is also common. Is digital media evolving as the new footnotes tradition. I don't know.

Lets wait and see how academic presence will evolve in the new millennium.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Five Priorities for India to Become A Great Nation

India should consider its priorities in the new year while planning for its future. India is entering an important phase in this new year. India is also under new leadership. This is the right time to consider its priorities and decide its path for a bright future.

National Integration and Countering Regionalism

India has twenty nine states and each state has its border taxes and border checkpoints. When all the states are part of the national system, each state having its individual border taxes and tax outposts seems redundant. In developed countries border checkposts are only at the borders of the country, not each state or province. Movement of people and goods across states is seamless and convenient. Territorial integrity is important to achieve unified nationality. Integrated road system is essential for free transportation of people and goods for the country to develop economically and prosper. Prosperity of India before 1500s was due to this free travel. Nikitin, a Russian visitor to the Vijayanagara court of Krishnadevaraya remarked how convenient it was to travel within India, and how he was allowed to pass through different states (regional kingdoms in those days), finally reaching South India. In fact, the world famous Indian ocean trade system flourished on this free movement of peoples and goods. Modern state governments in India are fiercely protective of their regionalism, often reserving jobs, and educational opportunities for locals. Taxing goods at the border checkpoints is one of the major income sources for the states. India should develop a system of collecting state taxes at the point of final sale and remove the border checkpoints from all the internal state borders.

Introduce Uniform Civil Code

India has a civil code which is not uniform and changes from one social group to the other. For any country to progress on the path of development a uniform civil code is essential. A uniform civil code regardless of religion, caste, or geographical location are important for citizens to have equal opportunities, and be successful contributors to the economic, political and social development of the country. Countering inequality through universal civil code is essential to development. Developed western and Asian countries succeeded by having a uniform civil code. 

Counter Internal and External Terror Threats

Lack of Mechanism to handle terrorism and terror related crimes is an issue in India. Terror attacks, both internal and external are threats to sovereignty of a nation and should be treated as acts of war rather than simple crimes. Ordinary criminal courts are not suited to handle such terror threats. India should institute a mechanism to investigate and punish terror crimes under separate terror courts, and develop a legal system to handle terror attacks.

Commitment to Women's Development and Security

Equal representation of women in all walks of life is very important for India to become a developed nation. China's rapid progress is due to equal rights, and the equal opportunities afforded to women in all fields of work. Educational opportunities available to women are essential part of the development of a country. If India can bridge the gap for women it should have achieved a major part of its developmental goals. Missing women is one of the common points about India frequently noted by visiting Chinese executives. Protecting women from unwanted sexual and other assaults is important. A new women's legal code should be enacted to counter assaults on women in public places.

Infrastructure and Basic Sanitation Facilities

Infrastructure development is very uneven across India. Some regions of India have world class roads and communications while other regions do not have even basic road connectivity. Basic facilities such as electricity, water supply and sewage services are equally dismal in several regions of India. Unless all regions are developed equally concerning the infrastructure, communications, electricity, water and sewage, a country could not progress. Sanitation and sewage system exists in cities, but sadly the sewage flows untreated into the rivers of India causing immense pollution. Sewage treatment plants should be built, and all sewage water should be treated properly before letting it drain into the rivers. 

India dreams and envisions its arrival on world stage as a first world country. Every leader of India proclaims India's arrival on the world stage during his Independence Day and Republic day speeches. Same message is repeated in the states by the respective Chief Ministers. India's leaders promise and tell the public of India how close India is to becoming a super power like Japan, Or Singapore in Asia, and become the number one Asian country, and join the league of top nations of the world along with its neighbor China. However, India is bogged down by several constraints of its own making which are hampering its progress towards becoming a first world nation.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


SAARC (South Asian Association for Cooperation) represents an acronym that could not be easily understood. The acronym is a true representation of the hodge-podge of states that it includes. Other than geographical proximity its member states (India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Srilanka, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan) are completely different from each other in political, economic and social structures. It is strange that Myanmar is still not a member of this group. Similar is the case with NAM. India joined the Non Aligned Movement with Nehru's initiative with lofty goals, but due to the nature of states that joined it, there is very little that it accomplished. It exists only in name, while a number of its members are currently in conditions that are similar to civil war, no diplomatic or military initiative is undertaken by this group. Emerging crises have rendered the NAM become an association that holds periodic meetings with no significant contributions. 

Any association dictated by geographical proximity rather than political, social and economic ideals is bound to fail in the face of crisis, which is exactly what the SAARC is attempting to avert. Half of the nations that are members of this group are struggling with internal terrorist organizations, and some are still struggling to establish democratic states. India is the only stable, and established democracy in this group of nations. With the internal and external terror threats, and border disputes, it is impossible for this association to progress  beyond the basic economic cooperation. 

India if it plans to be member of an association for economic and defense cooperation it should look towards the Indian Ocean. India should take lead in developing an association similar to the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) by including East African nations and other states on the Indian ocean economic zone such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand,  and Australia. It could also include New Zealand and Japan, which could strengthen it further. Asia needs a powerful regional association of cooperation. These nations should cooperate not only in trade, but in military and defense strategy, jointly developing techniques to counter terrorist and military threats. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ministry of Yoga: A Step in the Right Direction

Ministry of Yoga: A Step in the Right Direction

Government of India took a step in the right direction by creating the ministry of Yoga. This is the first step to reclaiming and possessing India's true cultural heritage. Prime Minister Modi is upholding his promise to serve India, through this quest for true knowledge and heritage of Yoga, one of the greatest contributions of India. Yoga is an esoteric mind-body spiritual technique perfected in India as early as the early first evidence of Indian culture are traceable. Indus valley, as well as Vedic texts provide the first basic evidence, while the first text is Yogasutras composed by Patanjali, dated to about 600 B.C.E. Early lime stone statue of a man from Mohenjodaro in meditative stance (John Marshal identified him as philosopher-king) supports that meditative practices (known as yoga) were known during this period. Vedas also contains several reference to yoga, which will be discussed below. Traditional yoga includes practices that have come to be classed as Hathayoga, Pranayama, and Rajayoga, while earlier yoga included all of these three elements as part of the essential practice of yoga. However, modern yoga and its revival is to be credited to the West, which rekindled the interest of millions of individuals in the fascinating practice of yoga.

Origins of Yoga in India
A thousand years of colonial and alien rule has forced India to distance itself from its past, and especially its spiritual and religious heritage. Yoga has suffered most due to this neglect. Its origins are lost, and only cryptic references from the Vedas remain. Rigveda, the most ancient scripture in the world (Rigveda's  most ancient hymns date to 4600 B.C.E while the its latest sections date to 2300 B.C.E. although some place the latest portions between 2000-1800 B.C.E.) contains the earliest references to yoga. Vedic references note yoga, as a vehicle (conveyance), to visualize or to go beyond what can be seen or understood by the naked eye (the physical vision). Hence Yoga is also used in the sense of yukta (join or jointed) with the inner self-conscious (Atma-Brahma) to open the mind's (mana) eye. Opening this inner eye or the eye of the mind by ascending the vehicle of yoga is at the core of yoga practice referred in this early stage. This central goal continues to dominate the later quest of yoga known from Hindu tradition (also known from other Indian traditions such as Buddhist and Jain traditions, as well as other yoga practitioners such as Anatha Kesakambalin, etc.).  Life stories of both the Buddha (560-480 B.C.E) and the Jaina Mahavira (599-527 B.C.E.) mention their meeting with established yoga teachers, and their practice of yoga, as a path to enlightenment. Therefore it is clear that between 2000 B.C.E-600 B.C.E., yoga was practiced by sages, and those seeking true knowledge (atma jnana), although it is not clear if it was practiced by common people during this period. Yoga practice by common people only comes to us through the discussion of yoga in Bhagavadgita and Mahabharata (300 B.C.E). Yoga texts may have also existed during this early stage between 2000 B.C.E-600 B.C.E, however, only Patanjali's Yogasutras, and Samkhyakarika of Isvarakrishna are the only surviving texts known to us. While the Yogasutras, and Samkhyakarika provide the textual basis for the philosophical practice of mindful meditation. while physical discipline and postures are important to achieve perfection in this philosophical practice of mindful meditation texts avoid describing the postures, and leave it to personal practice under an accomplished teacher, lest it may lead to wrongful postures and become harmful rather than beneficial to the soul. This might have been the reason Mahabharata and Bhagavadgita confine to discussion of meditative and philosophical aspects of Yoga, but not physical postures.     

Modern Yoga

Modern society found reliable and quantifiable value in practicing yoga, for mental and physical well being of an individual, which is at the core its revival in the West as well as India.  However, India should be conscious of Yoga in its true practice and evolution, and support a holistic understanding of Yoga as a spiritual and physical practice, but not entirely driven by utilitarian goals of health, and beauty.
The following book may be useful in understanding the research and publications available on yoga: Callahan D. Yoga : An Annotated Bibliography Of Works In English, 1981-2005 / Daren Callahan (Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland & Co. Inc., Publishers, c2007). This book includes 2,400 scholarly and popular works on Yoga, which only goes to show the popularity of yoga as a subject of popular study and practice in modern world. Physical ailments from multiple sclerosis to arthritis, blood pressure, heart attack and numerous other issues. Yoga is especially found to be helpful to individuals suffering from depression and PTSD. It is this utilitarian perspective that brought yoga to fame recently in the last fifty years. Yoga is found to be helpful in a number of health issues at the same time it is also noted for boosting self confidence and body image of practitioners. The positive benefits of yoga made it a favorite activity  for a number of practitioners in the United States, and the Western hemisphere in general. Therefore yoga has transformed in the modern practice as a therapy, and a physical exercise, although it is also practiced for spiritual benefits occasionally. Recent book Yoga : the art of transformation by Debra Diamond et al., published the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, October 19, 2013-January 26, 2014, broadly discusses the background and practice of yoga with illustrations (Organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Path Forward
Yoga community hopes for help and support from the ministry of Yoga in its development and practice. The Ministry of Yoga, would be served well to invite proposal from various community members of Yoga practice, as well as scholarly and research groups for the development of Yoga, and its practice. As a new ministry, it will be challenge to develop an all encompassing program at the outset, but seeking cooperation and advise from various practitioners might help it evolve a right action plan. One aspect that needs to be considered carefully is preserving the integrity of Yoga in age of commercialization. Aspects of commercialization should be curbed, and a clear path of understanding and synthesis between the traditional path of Yoga and modern practice of Yoga should be established. A priority of the ministry of Yoga should be finding and digitalizing all available texts and resources of Yoga and making them freely available to Yoga practitioners.

Monday, September 29, 2014

An International Day of Yoga! What About India!!

There have been a number of talks on the subject of creating an international day for Yoga, ever since Prime Minister of India, Mr. Modi has called for it during his address to the United Nations General Assembly. We have 365 days in a year, and have a number of days marked for a variety of issues ranging from something as simple as Coffee to issues as serious as  HIV/AIDs. Whats with naming one more day for something? It could be easily done. But the bigger question is what is it going to do for Yoga? Yoga flourished and survived without any support or recognition from governmental agencies in India or any other country for that matter until now, and I am sure it will continue to do so in the future. 

If India is so concerned about Yoga's recognition, and practice internationally, he must be equally concerned about its recognition and practice in India. Millions of children in India have grown up in India without knowing what is yoga, and how or why it is practiced. It is still common to grow up in India and be ignorant of yoga. National education, and museums do not recognize Yoga as a subject. Part of the blame rests with national and state governments and public education system.   

Public education system has no place for physical education or yoga for that matter. Public buildings do not have play areas or yoga rooms. Bus stations, railway stations, or airports, and parks or recreational centers do not have any facilities such as yoga rooms. Yoga, and the practice of yoga has received better attention and facilities in the Western countries than India through voluntary support.

If India is interested then the government must take immediate measures to include Yoga in the mainstream Indian educational curriculum, and facilitate the construction of Yoga rooms in the public buildings, and support Yoga gurus who dedicate their lives to the practice and teaching of Yoga. 
Why not have a national Yoga day in India? May be one day could be marked as a national holiday for yoga. May be it will be conducive to include Yoga in the physical education curriculums, and holds regional and national competitions to support development of Yoga programs in India. Developing educational materials, and including yoga exhibits in museums would also be helpful. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

India's Oceanic Nostalgia

India Rediscovers its Ocean World

At one time in history India had close to a hundred and fifty port cities. Port cities are in fact the greatest cultural centers with stimulating environment that inspired poets, artists, dancers, and musicians alike. India's wide open shores were its treasure houses of arts and literature for over two millennia. In fact, India's ocean shores graced the titles of more than one emperor of Ancient India. the Satavahana emperor, Gautamiputra Satakarni proudly proclaimed himself the 'Trisamudradhipati,' meaning 'lord of the three oceans,' proudly claiming control over the complete ocean shore of India. Dvaraka might have been submerged in the ocean, Puhar might have been consumed by fire, but their memories endure. Is it this memory that is propelling India to propose project 'Mausam'?

Project Mausam is initiated by Union Ministry of Cultiure, with supporting work from Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts (IGNCA). Mausam is especially and appropriate name, as a natural phenomenon that connects India to its oceanic neighbors. Proposal is submitted to the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO at the Doha conference on 20th June, 2014. Hopefully UNESCO sees the connections in the Indian Ocean region and recognizes it with official seal of approval. 

India should not just stop at rediscovering its past in the oceanic world, but start recreating contacts and construct communication and transport networks to sustain and develop renewed relations with Indian ocean region. India should construct a tunnel bridge to Andaman Islands, and from there onwards to Bali, Thailand, and Cambodia on the East Coast, and renew ocean liners to Africa on the West Coast.