The Dave Freedholm Interview – Rajiv Malhotra

Dave Freedholm

Rajiv MalhotraDave Freedholm teaches world religion and philosophy at a nationally recognized independent college preparatory school in the U.S. Recently, he was a delegate to the World Congress for the Preservation of Religious Diversity in Delhi, India. A frequent speaker on Hinduism and religious pluralism, Dave is currently co-authoring Hinduism: An Introduction for High School Students with Prof. Arvind Sharma. 

I consider his views interesting for two reasons. First, as a teacher he has important things to say about the way schools portray India and its traditions. Second, as he identifies himself as a Hindu, his insights may also reflect the views of many ‘Euro-American Hindus’, i.e. over 15 million Americans who now practice Hindu activities, such as yoga, meditation, and kirtan, amongst others. Neither of these perspectives has been given much coverage by the Indian media. — Rajiv Malhotra

Rajiv: Why are you interested in the way Hinduism is portrayed in American textbooks?

Dave: Any treatment of India in courses on world history, social studies, or in any other discipline, inevitably includes an analysis of Hinduism. Thus, portrayals of Hinduism greatly affect America’s understanding of India. This is a point that many ‘secular’ Indians seem to ignore, hoping that they can construct an image of an India apart from religion. But, it seems to me, such efforts are doomed to fail. The importance of understanding the role religion plays in the world, especially after September 11, has never been more apparent. This is reflected in the U.S. by increasing interest in studying world religion in secondary schools, public and private. It is important to note that ‘teaching about’ religion is not the same as preaching or promoting any given religion. Rather it is a distant and objective view. While I understand religion is deliberately excluded from the education system in India just as it has been in the U.S., I hope that they too will consider the importance of giving students a fair and sympathetic introduction to the world’s religion in a neutral manner.

Given the surge in interest in teaching world religion, it is about time that America’s education system takes a serious look at the way Hinduism is currently portrayed in its textbooks. As a teacher in a religiously unaffiliated, independent high school, I have been able to teach world religion and world philosophy to American high school students for some time. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the ways in which Hinduism is treated in the textbooks books I’ve used and reviewed.

Rajiv : Why? In what ways are these portrayals different from your own understanding and experience of Hinduism?

Dave : I’ve spent years studying theology in general and Hinduism in particular in an academic way. Also, I’ve been a practitioner of Hindu spirituality for some years. I’m one of the millions of Americans who practice yoga, kirtan and meditation. I’ve made several trips to India, including a pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges river. Last year, I led a group of high school students to India and Nepal.

In all my encounters with Hindus and Hinduism, both in the U.S. and abroad, I’ve never recognized the ‘Hinduism’ that is described in many American textbooks. Also, it has surprised me to find so many Indian Hindus who seem reluctant to identify themselves as such, as if there were some taboo associated with it. I wonder if the negative stereotypes often connected with Hinduism have resulted in this suppression of identity, especially with young people growing up in a ‘Westernized’ world.

Rajiv : How does the treatment of Hinduism in textbooks differ from the treatment of other religions?

Dave : When scholars examine the world’s religions they usually attempt to distinguish between their ‘universal’ theological/philosophical foundations and the particular historically and culturally bound social structures of societies that practice those religions. To take Christianity as an example, biblical scholars, using a sophisticated hermeneutics, extract a ‘universal’ Pauline theology from the social context of Paul’s letters that presumed slavery, the subjugation of women, etc. Pauline statements that seem to support this social order are reinterpreted in light of passages that are deemed to reflect more universal values.

Rajiv : What are specific examples of the way Christianity’s core theology is kept separate from social ills in its history?

Dave : Any particular historical and/or social out-working of Christianity is interpreted in context, and distinguished from universal Christian theology. Hence, the feudal system in medieval Europe, which was widely justified via Christian theology and texts, is not used as a defining characteristic of Christianity or an interpretive key for its theology today. The same could be said for the system of slavery upon which ‘Christian’ America was built. In fact, as time moved on, Christian theology and biblical interpretation were later used to overturn these systems.

Likewise, unjust social and economic structures in predominantly Christian countries today are not used as defining characteristics of Christianity or Christian theology. To give one more example, Christian theologians today have repudiated the anti-Judaism which was widely practiced in Christian societies for a long time and culminated in the Holocaust by arguing that anti-Judaism is not a part of ‘genuine’ Christianity as properly understood.

Most Christians today (and most scholars of religion) would be scandalized if the feudal system, slavery, capitalist exploitation or anti-Judaism were used to define the essence of Christianity. They would understand these things to be historically and socially bound and not part of Christian universal ideals. In short, descriptions of Christianity in textbooks would distinguish the core or essence of Christian theology from specific social, historical and political contexts. However, Hinduism is not treated in the same way.

Rajiv : To look for a moment at other examples, isn’t the same true in the portrayal of Islam post-Sept. 11? Don’t many scholars of Islam and many Muslims assert that it is wrong to portray ‘genuine’ Islam by appealing to social policies of the Taliban or to the violent jihad of bin Laden?

Dave : Absolutely. Muslims would be up in arms if American schoolchildren were to be taught about Islam through that negative lens.

Rajiv : Yet, you take the position that the same even-handed treatment isn’t given to Hinduism, is that right?

Dave : That is unfortunately the case. Let’s look at the example of caste again. When it comes to portraying Hinduism, scholars use ‘caste’ (itself a European construct) as a (and sometimes the) defining characteristic of Hinduism and Hindu theology/philosophy. As Ronald Inden has emphasized, caste has become an ‘essence’ in defining Hinduism and India. Little or no attempt is made to understand caste as a context-bound social structure apart from the more universal elements of Hindu thought.

Also, textbooks often ignore attempts by Hindu reformers and thinkers to use Hindu theology itself to combat what many see as an unjust social system that has little to do with ‘genuine’ Hinduism. The sophisticated theological, historical and sociological interpretation given to Christianity (and other religions) is often denied to Hinduism. Instead, ‘caste’ is used as a club against Hinduism, in order to prove its backwardness when compared to other religions.

Rajiv : In your research on the hardened, four-tier ‘caste system’, that is seen as essential to Indian society, what did you find to be the historical factors that gave shape to it?

Dave : It does seem that the caste system, as understood today, was foisted on Indian society by its Western (Christian) oppressors, the British. A number of scholars have done work on this recently (see e.g., Dirks, Hobson and Kishwar). The British were frustrated in their attempts to understand and govern in the midst of the very diverse community-bound, self-governing sets of social customs and laws which existed in Indian society. The British wanted to find a ‘universal’ set of ‘Hindu’ laws and customs (like their own) that they could use to govern (read ‘subjugate’) India. Finding no simplistic universal laws similar to, say, the Ten Commandments, they established their idea of ‘Hindu Law’ based on their interpretation of the Manusmriti.

As Madhu Kishwar writes, “A policy decision was taken at the highest levels in the India Office to keep this particular document in circulation and project it as the fountainhead of Hindu jurisprudence, for the purpose of perpetuating the illusion that the British were merely enforcing the shastric injunctions by which Hindus were governed anyway, and that they had inherited the authority to administer this law.”

Censuses were conducted by the British to confirm and solidify the system that they themselves had identified and established as a norm. They then promoted this myth to the Indian population and to people abroad (with the aid of Western scholars) until it became accepted as a historical, sociological and philosophical ‘truth’. 

Rajiv : What was the impact of all this?

Dave : ‘Caste’ was used to justify Christian proselytizing and for continued domination over the Indian population, and this continues to be the case today. Also, the ills of contemporary Indian society (poverty, caste, etc.), which were exacerbated in part due to centuries long foreign occupation, exploitation and domination, are blamed primarily on Hindu thought. Thus, some Western scholars, ignoring the historic subversion of Indian society and Hinduism by the West, align themselves with the ‘oppressed’ against the ‘evils’ of Hinduism. The victim is made to feel guilty and hence the ‘Hindu shame’ I find amongst some Hindus.

Rajiv : Have you been able to identify what modern Hindu leaders and thinkers have done, or are doing, to reform the caste system?

Dave : Efforts within Hindu society to reform itself, and to provide a new vision of Hinduism, are too often ignored or downplayed. Many leading Hindu religious leaders and thinkers (the list here would be tremendously long) have repudiated the caste system and tried to articulate a Hindu theology that is far more universal in character. Gandhi is an obvious example. Also, the great representative of Hinduism in the West at the turn of the 20th century, Swami Vivekananda, came out definitively against the caste system.

Vivekananda spoke candidly of the problems caused by inequality in Indian society, and of the need for reform. But he refused to see caste and other social problems as being inherently a part of Hinduism, seeing them rather as a perversion of its ideals. He challenged his fellow Hindus to strive for the ideals embodied in their tradition, saying: “Religion, the common inheritance, the universal birthright of the race, must be brought free to the door of everybody.”

Likewise, most modern Hindu leaders have advocated societal reforms and an end to discrimination based on caste. Furthermore, such discrimination has already been legally abolished by the Indian constitution. It is natural that it will take time to end the problems just as the abolition of slavery did not end racism and prejudice in the U.S. It takes time to eliminate ingrained prejudices and patterns of behavior.

Rajiv : What have you seen in India in terms of reform of the caste system?

Dave : I am a great admirer and supporter of the work of Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji of Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh. He is one of the most admired Hindu leaders in India today, and runs numerous charitable projects, such as medical clinics for the poor, earthquake relief, orphanages, environmental projects, schools for the poor, etc. All of these services are open to everyone regardless of gender, caste, ethnicity or religion. At Parmarth Niketan, there is an orphanage for young boys from all castes and backgrounds. They are given a well-rounded education, including training in Sanskrit and Indian culture. Last fall, the ashram conducted a sacred thread ceremony for boys coming of age. This ceremony has usually been reserved for high caste boys, but it was performed for any boy who requested it, no matter what his background. I found no distinctions based on caste. This is just one example of many similar reforms going on from within the tradition.

Rajiv : Why have such views and efforts within Hindu society been ignored?

Dave : Attempts by Hindus to define themselves are seen as invalid or irrelevant, because they are not consistent with the construct of Hinduism in place today. As Madhu Kishwar says, “People in India have demonstrated time and again that they are willing to accept changes in their customs, provided those who propose change take the trouble to win the confidence of the community, rather than attack or humiliate the community as hostile outsiders. The success of the 19th century social reformers is testimony to this inherent flexibility of Hindu communities. In recent decades, the work of Swadhyaya [Parivar] in parts of western India, the Radhasoamis in Northern India, and many other reform movements have carried forward the same tradition.”

Rajiv : Is caste central to portrayals of Hinduism in American textbooks?

Dave : Yes, absolutely. In recent years, Hindus in the U.S. have examined the portrayals of India and Hinduism in textbooks. First of all, American students are taught very little about India and Hinduism, especially in public schools. When India and Hinduism are mentioned in world history textbooks, caste is often one of the few things taught. To give just one example, students in New York State are required to take an exam in world history. The world’s major belief systems are an area of examination. In reviews and sample essays in this area, caste is offered as the defining characteristic of Hinduism. In religion textbooks used in many major colleges, caste is the central part of almost every treatment of Hinduism.

Rajiv : What other problems exist in the way India and Hinduism are portrayed in American textbooks?

Dave : My review of many different textbooks shows that Indians’ own achievements are under-emphasized, if mentioned at all. What is emphasized are the ‘benefits’ brought by outsiders entering India by invasion or other means. This has been called “the invasion theory of India.” Under this picture of Indian history, the British period is mainly the history of the British, as it played out in India. The Islamic period is mainly about Islamic rulers and what they were doing in India—and so on. Indians do not seem to have their own history.

This reminds me of the earlier accounts of African-American history, in which African-Americans were seen as objects in the lives of their masters, and not as having a history of their own per se. Recently, many eminent African-American scholars have got organized and changed the way the history of African-Americans is understood and written in textbooks. Indians have not attempted this seriously, it seems.

Rajiv : So what should be done about this?

Dave : Well, based on what we have discussed, the problem seems clear. Rather than looking for what is universal in Hindu beliefs and practices, textbooks focus on and define Hinduism based on a social structure that is tangentially related and is not at its philosophical core. It would be like making the crusades in medieval Europe, or racism and segregation in 20th century America—societal ills that were justified by some with appeals to Christian theology—as the defining characteristics or essences of Christianity.

It is important to identify the universal principles and practices that are essential to Hinduism across cultures and nations, especially now that Hinduism is being practiced outside of India and Indian culture. In the U.S., the Indian-American community continues to grow and there are now many second and third generation Hindus who have grown up in American society. The same is true in the U.K., Australia, Canada and elsewhere. As well, increasing numbers of Euro-Americans have begun practicing Hinduism. In fact, I’m happy to be identified as a Hindu. What does it mean to be a Hindu in cultures where caste is irrelevant?

Rajiv : What is at stake here?

Dave : In the end, it seems incumbent on scholars to reassess the way they interpret Hinduism, especially with regard to caste. Will interpretations of Hinduism be done with the
same theological/philosophical, historical and sociological sophistication and subtlety afforded other religions? Further, will they allow Hindus to offer interpretations of their own faith that reflect new self-understandings and self-interpretations in light of new historical and social settings and concerns? Or will they continue to insist that Hindus and Hinduism conform to the images that were, and still are, made by those outside the community?

Rajiv : When I raise these issues with Indians, they seem convinced that there already exist many excellent books on India and Hinduism. So why are these not being used in schools?

Dave : There are some excellent books on India and Hinduism. Unfortunately, none are especially well-suited to the particular needs of U.S. secondary school students and teachers. For example, books intended for use within a faith community would not work well in American schools which emphasize the neutral, academic study of various religions. As well, it is important to consider just how materials on India and Hinduism might be used within existing school curricula in the U.S. It is important to understand the system in place and discover ways to make an impact within the institutions that exist and that are very powerful.

Rajiv : What have other religions and nationalities done in similar circumstances?

Dave : Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, each have several very well-funded and professionally run organizations, whose sole purpose is to bring American educators together, to ensure an authentic and sympathetic understanding of their faiths in schools. They lobby, they fund new publications that meet academic standards and norms, they participate in educational conferences, and they have representatives on education boards. In other words, they are involved, as opposed to assuming that all is well in the hands of third parties.

Rajiv : Thanks for speaking candidly about your professional views as well as some personal beliefs. This takes courage, commitment, and clarity. Yours is an interesting perspective that deserves to be integrated along with various other perspectives, if there is to be a truly ‘global’ Hinduism.

Dave : I am delighted to be able to explain to an Indian audience how many non-Indians feel about these matters. — Excerpted from Academic Hinduphobia by Rajiv Malhotra. The book is published in India by Voice of India, New Delhi.

Academic Hinduphobia : A Critique of Wendy Doniger's Erotic School of Indology