Changing Face of India Studies in the West

2 May 2019 | 13 minute read

A Personal Account: Indology with its colonial roots is giving way to more diverse approaches reflecting the increasing prominence of Indians in the West.

Maxwell Hall, at a major U.S. University


This writer had occasion to spend spring 2010 semester (January – May 2010) at the University of Massachusetts, Center for Indic Studies, as a visiting faculty member, followed by visits in the following years. Though a mathematical scientist by training, he was invited to teach courses in languages (Hindi with some Sanskrit) and a seminar on origins of civilization, the latter based substantially on his own work and of his colleagues, notably David Frawley and the late Natwar Jha. In addition he was invited to give lectures on his research and meet with workers in Boston, Dartmouth, Oklahoma and Texas. He was also interviewed both on television and the print media. What follows is a brief account of his experience over the past several months.

What struck him in these interactions was the rapidly changing scene in the study of India and a spirit and content that is quite different from what one finds in history and other departments in India. To begin with, one is struck by the much younger age profile of the audience compared to what one sees at similar gatherings in India at places, like say, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, The Mythic Society, and the like. Second, the dismissal on the part of the youth at least of colonial formulations like the Aryan invasion and its myths as scientifically discredited and not worth spending time on. They show much greater interest in recent scientific findings in natural history and genetics. Almost the only people to bring up old issues like the Aryan-Dravidian divide and the foreign origin of the Vedas were some elderly academics and their hapless students. The younger generation on the other hand sees all this not merely as false, but totally irrelevant. They do not seem to suffer from the complex of excessive deference to Western scholars still prevalent in India, especially in the media. (One prominent newspaper in India seems to deem it an honor to carry contributions, however unsound, by Western scholars of the right color).

It is important to recognize the implications of this: the ground has shifted in the debate about ancient India. It is no longer about indigenous vs foreign, Aryan vs Dravidian, etc. but about what we can learn from ancient records about our ancestors and their achievements. The greatest interest today is in Yoga and Vedanta, particularly their value in the study of modern science. In fact, the liveliest discussion this writer had followed his observations relating to Vedantic metaphysics and some problems in quantum physics, notably Bell’s Theorem and its implications.

Interestingly this took place following his lecture at MIT at which scientists from MIT and Harvard were present. On the other hand the audience was quite impatient with Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard when he brought up his favorite but now discredited argument claiming ‘No horse in Harappa.’ Both the speaker and members of the audience pointed out that horse remains had been recorded at Harappan sites going back to John Marshall. It is also irrelevant.  The speaker later observed in jest that the Aryan invasion theory seems to have given way to a new ‘Horse invasion theory’.

As can be seen, the U.S. academic scene relating to ancient India has moved beyond the colonial Eurocentric themes that still dominate Indian academia. One cannot imagine something like Karunanidhi’s honoring of Parpola for his identification of Harappans as Tamilian happening in U.S. academia. It would be laughed off as a political gimmick. If present trends continue, academics and departments in India could well find themselves becoming colonial anachronisms, like much of the media and the Lutyen’s Delhi intelligentsia.

In this context, it may be worth observing that nearly all the students taking the author’s courses were Americans, not Indians. Curiously, the Sanskrit Department at Harvard seems to have no students of Indian origin, either from India or U.S. born. The two students that accompanied Professor Witzel to the lecture happened to be Eastern Europeans, perhaps happy to have the chance to be in the U.S.

The presentation here is limited to the cultural and historical aspects of India studies and does not touch on matters relating to policy analysis, economics and related issues. These have their own dynamics that are addressed at separate centers or in the relevant departments (like political science or business) as the case may be.

The rest of the article looks at the U.S. scene from the perspective of a visiting scholar at the University of Massachusetts, Center for Indic Studies at Dartmouth, MIT, Boston University and the University of Manchester in U.K. and King’s College, London. It essentially reflects the view of students and the younger generation of scholars in the U.S. and U.K.

Two approaches

There are two approaches to studying an ancient civilization like India ─ antiquarian and content driven. In the antiquarian, one studies the civilization in question, be it Egyptian, Mesopotamian or whatever purely as a slice of a past that is irrecoverably lost and irrelevant to the present. For two hundred years and more, that is largely how scholars in the academic discipline known as Indology have looked at India ─ an ancient civilization like Egypt and Sumer that is no longer living. For that reason these Indologists have called Sanskrit a ‘dead language’.

But is it a true picture of India? To begin with the sacred books of ancient India, the Vedas, the Puranas and the Bhagavadgita are still the sacred books to Indians today, not just in India but worldwide; they are still studied and recited. Unlike the gods of ancient Egypt and pagan Greece, the Hindu deity Krishna is worshipped more widely today than he was two thousand years ago. There are Krishna cults of non-Indian origin like ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness or the Hare Krishnas) that did not exist in ancient times. Most recently, the movie Avatar based on the Hindu concept of reincarnation has enjoyed a cult-like following. These are driven by what Indian tradition has to offer, its content rather than its antiquity.

Some may see this as part of a revivalist movement, an attempt to recover a past that, if not long lost, was at least long suppressed. But how about Yoga, Ayurveda, and even Paninian linguistics? All these have modern manifestations relating to life style management and subjects like computer science. And more recently, people are becoming aware that great thinkers of Vedanta like Shankara and Madhva had thought deeply into problems of Reality and Consciousness that quantum physicists have begun to encounter only recently. Madhva 800 years ago asked the same metaphysical questions that Albert Einstein was asking until his death in 1955. This was the topic of my talks at MIT and also at the University of Manchester in England.

This means: while the discipline called Indology for 200 years and more has tried to look at the contributions of the Indian civilization as antique curiosities of academic interest, the reality is that Indian civilization is a living, vital force that guides over a billion people all over the world and influences many more, perhaps without their being aware of it. Many non-Indians practice Yoga, follow Ayurvedic treatments, relish Indian food, and enjoy and even adopt Indian music and dance. None of this true of ancient Egypt, Sumer or even Greece whose contributions are consigned to museums and occasional  reverential ‘revivals’ of classical works like Greek drama.

New phase

It is clear therefore that the study of India has entered a new phase, one in which the ancient and the contemporary worlds meet and sometimes merge. This was brought home to the author when thanks to the hospitality of the Center for Indic Studies and the 3R’s Foundation he was able to spend the spring 2010 semester at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth teaching and carrying out research. Unlike in most other academic centers in Europe and the United States, which are now in precipitous decline, the Center’s activities and interests are not limited to ancient India but go on  to embrace the contemporary world. It conducts courses in modern languages like Hindi, holds musical concerts with innovative format like combining Jazz and Indian classical music none of which comes under the rubric of academic Indology.

It is entirely proper that Indic Studies should be taking this route off the beaten track of Indology ─ combining the past and the present while pointing a way to the future. This is both timely and needed as the following brief survey of the worldwide scene in Indology makes apparent.

Changing world

Within the past five years, the Sanskrit Department at Cambridge University  (image) and the Berlin Institute of Indology, two of the oldest and most prestigious Indology centers in the West, have shut down. The reason cited is lack of interest. At Cambridge, not a single student had enrolled for its Sanskrit or Hindi course forcing them to close. Still more recently the present occupant of the Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford expressed the view that he is likely to be the last occupant of that prestigious chair. Other universities in Europe and America are facing similar problems.

Coming at a time when worldwide interest in India is the highest in memory, it points to structural problems in Indology and related fields such as Indo-European Studies. What is striking is the contrast between this gloomy academic Indology scene and the outside world. During the author’s lecture tours in Europe, Australia and the United States, he found no lack of interest, especially among the youth. Only they are getting what they want from programs outside academic departments, in cultural centers like the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, temples and short courses and seminars conducted by visiting lecturers (like this writer).

This means the demand is there, but academic departments are being ignored by a public that is looking for new directions. This sense was confirmed during the stay at the University of Massacusetts Indic Study Center, which does not follow the well trodden path of academic Indology rooted in 19th century colonial India. Here one finds a freshness and enthusiasm that are missing in the older Indology departments in Europe and America. What has gone wrong with academic Indology, and what is to be done?

To understand the problem today it is necessary to visit its peculiar origins. Indology began with Sir William Jones’ observation in 1784 that Sanskrit and European languages were related. Jones was a capable linguist but he was also responsible for interpreting Indian law and customs to his employers, the British East India Company. This dual role of Indologists as scholars as well as interpreters of India continued well into the 20th century.

Indologists’ role as interpreters of India ended with independence in 1947, but many academic Indologists, especially in the West, failed to see it. They continued to get students from India, which seems to have lulled them into believing that it would be business as usual. But today, six decades later, Indian immigrants and persons of Indian origin occupy influential positions in business, industry and now the government in the U.S. and the U.K. They are now part of the establishment in their adopted lands. No one in the West today looks to Indology departments for advice on matters relating to India when they can get it from their next-door neighbor or an office colleague or even a relative by marriage.

Indology must move with the times

This means the Indologists’ position as interpreters of India to the West, and sometimes even to Indians, is gone for good. But this alone cannot explain why their Sanskrit and related programs are also folding. To understand this we need to look further and recognize that new scientific discoveries are impacting Indology in ways that could not be imagined even 20 years ago. This is nothing new. For more than 50 years, the foundation of Indology had been linguistics, particularly Sanskrit and Indo-European languages. Archaeological discoveries of the Harappan civilization forced Indologists to take this hard data also into their discipline.

Today, there is a similar revolution in the offing, brought on by discoveries in natural history and population genetics based on DNA analysis. Natural history tells us that we need to take into account sea level changes at the end of the last Ice Age. This led to major developments in land based civilizations when coastal populations were forced to move to the interior. Genetics has also thrown up surprises like the close kinship between Indian and Southeast Asian populations as well as their flora and fauna.

Looking to the future

These are exciting developments that scholars can ill afford to ignore. The questions though go beyond Indology. Sanskrit is the foundation of Indo-European Studies. If Sanskrit departments close, what will take its place? Will these departments then teach Icelandic, Old Norse or reconstructed Proto Indo-European? Can Indo-European Studies survive without Sanskrit? Do they deserve to survive when they have no relevance to today’s needs and interest? These are questions that we must all now face.

So where is the study of India headed? To help see this it helps to go to the point raised at the beginning of this section: it cannot remain rooted in the past looking for relics like Proto-Indo-European or something else that is of little interest to young people today; it must offer ideas and experiences that they find relevant and exciting. Yoga is one such example: people practice it because it helps them to lead better lives today and not because its rules were laid down by an ancient sage thousands of years ago. The same is true of music and dance ─ we enjoy them for they have to offer today, not just because of our reverence for the ancient sage Bharata.

Sanskrit also must be studied and taught in the same spirit ─ with full recognition of and respect for its past greatness, but highlighting also the riches it has to offer today. For example there are wonderful dramas by playwrights like Bhasa, Shudraka, Vishakhadatta, Kalidasa and many more in Sanskrit and other Indian languages that audiences today can enjoy to the full. It might be worthwhile to stage scenes and even whole dramas (like Bhasa’s one-act plays).

These performances can be in translation as well as in the original Sanskrit at least as far as one act plays and individual scenes are concerned. These could be turned into videos with appropriate subtitles. The same holds for popular forms of entertainment like Yakshagana. Study of India can be fun, for Indians enjoy fun as much as anyone else.

Several universities both in India and the West have translations series of Indian classics going back to the 19th century. These should be supplemented wherever possible by visual arts series of classical dramas and other works of performances with appropriate subtitles. Imagine how exciting it will be to watch a performance of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala or Bhasa’s Svapnavasavadatta with subtitles and properly introduced by a scholar. Such works need not be limited to Sanskrit but go on to embrace masterpieces in other Indian languages also.

Then there is the greatness of Indian thought in philosophy, metaphysics, linguistics and other fields. They are mostly in Sanskrit, but to insist that they should be studied in Sanskrit is like insisting that Newton, Gauss and others should be studied only in the Latin original. Great thoughts remain great even in translation. But these works must be brought into the modern age by focusing on the content, the relevance of ideas. Again, the approach must be content driven, not antiquarian, rooted in reverence for the past.

If the Bhagavadgita is admired, it is because of its content, which is timeless, not just because it is thousands of years old.  For example, classical grammatical works of Panini, Katyayana and others must be made current by presenting their thoughts in modern linguistic forms, in a manner suitable for computer science. Similarly the great works of Samkhya and Vedanta should be recast in modern language and style, in a manner that can be useful in the modern world. They hold great potential for shedding light on problems in modern physics. This must be explored in the full.

Conclusion: colonization to globalization

India is and has always been of interest to the world; it will continue to be so in every age. Each age and each nation looks at India through its own eyes. Classical Indology reflects the interests and beliefs of the Colonial Age. Today, however, we are living in the era of globalization. But many academic departments in the West, as well as their counterparts in India still reflect colonial ideas, debating issues that are no longer relevant. In the West at least these departments are on their way to oblivion. It is the duty of Indian thinkers, educators and policymakers to ensure that they don’t become the last colonial outposts by clinging to ideas and methods that are disappearing from the lands that created them.

In summary, institutions like the Center for Indic Studies rather than Indology and other academic departments in the West represent the future of India studies. The success of this pioneering venture will no doubt spawn imitators at other universities, which will result in healthy competition ensure high standards. History, Sanskrit and other departments at Indian universities should collaborate and have joint programs with such centers rather than  with traditional ones that are holdovers from the colonial era and are on their way to extinction.

Acknowledgement: The author is most grateful to Dr. Balram Singh, the founder and director of the Center for Indic Studies, Pandit Ramadhin Ramsamooj, head of the 3Rs Foundation and its administrator Ms. Hema Mahase for their support and help. Their extraordinary hospitality made his stay both enjoyable and productive.


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