Notes of a Novice Student of India


by Justin E. H. Smith

Any specialist on anything will have had that peculiar experience of coming across some casual comment from a total non-specialist about the very thing to which one has devoted one’s life, a comment made as if there were no such thing as specialist knowledge, as if what we know in any domain at all were just so much hearsay and vulgarisation. Lord knows I’ve seen plenty of people denouncing Descartes, for example, or praising Spinoza (seldom the reverse), who know nothing, but nothing, about Descartes or Spinoza. This is easy and costless to do (and we all do it, including those of us who pride ourselves on being specialists and who really care about getting things right in our special domains), so long as one doesn’t mingle with the specialists in the domain about which one holds forth.

I’ve been thinking about how this works, about this seldom-discussed aspect of the sociology of knowledge, quite a bit recently, as I go deeper in my mid-career shift to what used to be called ‘Indology’ (more on this telling term soon). I am still a near-absolute beginner, yet I am now reaching the point where I can no longer say whatever I want to say on the grounds that I don’t know anything anyway, and that the people with whom I’m speaking don’t know anything either. I am now interacting with people who do not find it at all peculiar to care about Pāṇinian syntax theory, or about the rules of proper inference in Navya-Nyāya logic. The days are over when I could make sweeping claims about civilizational differences (the sort of sweeping claims my colleagues in philosophy often make) as regards rationality, for example. So in short I’m learning to be careful about what I say, which is really nothing other than entering a community of specialists. I expect anything I say now will appear naive to me when I look back on it in a few years, which is only to say that I will have entered more fully into that community. But one has to start somewhere.

What used to be called ‘Indology’ is now referred to more obliquely by phrases such as ‘South Asian Studies’, ‘Religions- und Kulturgeschichte Südasiens’, and so on. To some extent this shift can be explained as part of the broader changes that turned geology into ‘earth science’, and so on. Here, it’s just a matter of rebranding, and has nothing to do with respecting the sensibilities of the subjects themselves that are being studied (rocks and sediment don’t have sensibilities). In addition, there is the broad impact of Saïd’s critique of Orientalism, and the bizarre presumption that if we redescribe ourselves as doing ‘studies’ of something rather than the ‘-logy’ of it, then we are somehow immune to that critique. But unlike the transformation of Sinology into East-Asian Studies (it’s gone translinguistic now, too: in Montreal you can major in ‘Études est-asiatiques’), Indology is weighted down by other historical legacies than just the one Saïd picked out, since the gaze upon India has often been one that did not treat it as exotically other, but also, for often less than liberal reasons, treated it as fundamentally, autochthonously, the same. Thus there were several generations of European Indology that used the archaeological, linguistic, and philological evidence of a common Indo-European history for simply sinister, and distinctly European, political ends.

One thing I am quickly learning is that it is best, in South Asian Studies today, to simply leave that particularly charged aspect of Indology’s past alone. It is the stuff of cranks. Recently, I was castigated for observing that the shooter at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin would have done well to have learned that, according to the Nazi ideology he claimed to value, Sikhs are themselves Aryans, and worthy of respect from nativist white Americans. I noted that Aryanism is bullshit and suitable only for cranks, no matter who is deemed a member of that class, but still, I said, one ought to start out with the likes of Wade M. Page using principles to which he would be sure to assent. I argued that if he were to learn this much, he might well conclude that the world is more complicated than he had thought, and maybe he should just pause a while and reconsider his prejudices. No sooner did I finish writing this than I got news of some white yokel in Texas who was using his belief in ‘Vedism’ to claim that he had a first-amendment right to not have his groceries handled by an African-American supermarket clerk. Oh Jesus, I thought, I guess I was wrong. Here is a textbook case of someone who is clearly made worse by the tiny bit of knowledge he manages to come by. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as Brian Leiter likes to say. I suspect that this clown found his way to Vedism via some fringe white-supremacist nonsense, some pamphlet or blog of collected half-truths. Perhaps we would have seen similar results with Page (but then again, one might also point out that the idiot in Texas isn’t shooting anyone, he’s just being an awful, awful person).

With a fringe like that, one can well understand why the mainstream defines the range of legitimate interests as cautiously as it does. But while I’m speaking as a newcomer, it seems to me that there must have been quite a traumatic rift in the Euro-American study of India at the moment when the hippies –that is, if we should attempt to pigeon-hole them, the people who looked to India as the place that is precisely not Europe, and therefore worth learning from– moved in to replace the older generation of Indologists– that is, again to pigeon-hole, the people who looked to India primarily in view of its Indo-Europeanness. Wendy Doniger describes herself as a ‘recovering Indologist’, and I imagine there what she means is that she has spent her career, as someone who came up in the sixties, seeking to overcome the limitations of the generation that trained her. Of course, she has also had to position herself, like many Euro-American post-Indologists, in opposition to Indian popular opinion. And here we have an additional complicating factor in the strange play of forces that has given us today’s ‘South Asian Studies’: there is a tension between what Indian religious and political conservatives like to hear about Indian history and civilization, on the one hand, and on the other what the Euro-American post-Indologists, however much they may have been influenced by an early hope for total inter-civilizational harmony, have to say about India.

Hindu conservatives, old-fashioned European Indologists, and sixties-era harmony-seeking South Asianists all seem to have left their mark on this peculiar field, and for better or worse to be benefitting from each other’s work while also doing their best to avoid direct confrontation as to the deep reasons that motivate their respective interests in the field. Again, I’m speaking as a newcomer, and am particularly sensitive to the ways in which I might come across as not knwoing what I’m talking about, but I do think it’s safe to say that the different possible ways one might come to study Sanskrit are rather more various and complex than the motivations that might bring one to the study of, say, Swahili. There, one could predict with a fairly high degree accuracy what the Swahili student’s general take on the value, the sources, and the ‘actuality’ of East African culture and history are. Not so with those who are looking to Sanskrit as a portal of entry into Indian culture and history.

I add that this tumultuous history seems fairly sub rosa among the youngest generation of Euro-American students of South Asia. A generation or so after (I imagine) students such as Doniger had to confront the ancien régime of Mircea Eliade et al., students of South Asia today can approach it with an insouciant and innocent ‘interest in other cultures’, or in learning about the place their parents came from. I suppose this is progress, though part of me thinks that the contested nature of the discipline of Indology ought itself to be considered an integral part of South Asian studies today.

One division that does seem meaningful among the new generation of South Asianists is that between, on the one hand, the students who care first and foremost about India the place, who think one must go there, who care about Bollywood, food, the big fat Indian weddings of college roommates, and so on, and on the other hand the ones who don’t, who take India as a place that happens to have produced some great ideas and innovations, but that one need visit no more urgently than, say, a Plato scholar need make a trip to Athens. I am probably closer to the latter camp, though I am certainly as interested in the everyday world of contemporary India, in all its phenomenal richness, as I am in anything else. I expect I’ll make it to India at some point, but it will be nothing like a pilgrimage. I will think of it as work, I expect.

I started working on classical Indian philosophy principally as a result of a very significant encounter, perhaps six years ago, with some of the work of G. E. R. Lloyd (which I’ve known longer than six years, but which took a while to hit me the right way). Lloyd does not work on India, but rather on ancient Chinese and Greek medicine, but nonetheless it was his work that seemed to provide to me a methodological model for the sort of research I would like to do. As time goes on I’m finding myself more and more hung up on questions of methodology and, one might say, of metaphilosophy, wondering how to put two belief systems into comparison without simply resorting to impressionistic observations of the sort, ‘This sounds like that’, and without favoring one of the systems over the other in the comparison. Lloyd focuses on medicine, which perhaps lends itself more easily to comparison than philosophy as a whole, a field so nebulous, with a denotation so unstable, that one must always wonder whether one is talking about the same thing from one century to the next, let alone from one civilization to the next.

So I’m finding myself unable to really get started on the comparative project I’d set out on, yet I’m also finding myself happier and happier with the passage of time at my decision to start working on this stuff. I’m more convinced than ever that to the extent that academic philosophers stay in the village of European ideas, they are really only, to paraphrase Nietzsche, offering up a catalog of their own prejudices in the guise of philosophical arguments. There are big questions that interest me –such as the idea that grammar is for the Indian tradition what mathematics is for the Greek– but again I’m getting sufficiently socialized into the world of real scholars in this field that I am now sensitive to the difficulty of addressing this sort of question head on.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website