A synthesis beyond Orientalism

[Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.]

I am increasingly getting the impression that the debates over Orientalism in Asian traditions have taken a new turn, and one very much for the better.

Few books of the twentieth century have made as much impact as Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism. It is particularly striking that even though Said’s book was entirely about the Middle East, it has been a major scholarly landmark in the study of South and East Asia. Until Said, Western scholarship on Asia was rarely viewed as having a hidden colonial agenda. The perennialism of élitist mystical schools like Theosophy was taken seriously by scholars. And the views of Asian traditions’ popular advocates – such as D.T. Suzuki, Walpola Rahula, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – were widely accepted as accurate portrayals of those traditions.

After Said, all that changed. Baby-boom scholars in their youth had been caught up in the excitement of the Asiophilia of the Beatles and Jack Kerouac. But as they became the scholarly establishment in the ’80s and ’90s, their postmodern tendencies (born out of Vietnam-era skepticism of the establishment) grew far stronger. They turned a scolding, jaundiced eye on the mystical enthusiasms of previous generations (and their own youth). Perennialism and mysticism now not only looked like a misrepresentation of Asian traditions’ history, but were implicated in Western colonial domination.

I accept a great deal of this post-Orientalist critique. While I think the colonial connection can be overblown, this line of reasoning very much underlies my article critiquing Ken Wilber. While Wilber has spent a great deal of time and effort studying postmodern thought in the past few decades, he has, as far as I can tell, missed this aspect of it: the idea that mystical experience is central to most traditions is largely an invention of the nineteenth century.

But after a while the critique does get tiresome and overblown. It leads to sneering excrescences like the critique of “Protestant Buddhism”, which in the guise of neutral scholarship proclaim, not so subtly, that modern Buddhism isn’t really Buddhism but a repackaged Protestantism – somehow never managing to turn that same critical eye on Chinese traditions like Tiantai that split far more radically from early Buddhist doctrine.

I am now feeling hopeful that the tide has begun to turn away from this critique – not back to the uncritical perennialism of the ’60s, but toward a genuine synthesis.

Before Orientalism, scholars assumed a straightforward continuity between the premodern and modern versions of Asian traditions – such that the modern Hinduism of Radhakrishnan, say, could be taken to be more or less the same idea espoused in the Upaniṣads. Such a view is no longer tenable. But these days, I see a new line of thinking emerging. This new line argues that neither was there the radical discontinuity often seen by the Saidians – where popular and nineteenth-century Western conceptions of Asian thought are taken as arbitrarily invented fictions with no significant relation to anything that preceded them. (Said’s own method was to focus entirely on Western conceptions of “the Orient” and ignore any study of the “real Orient” that those conceptions aimed to represent. He has often, and rightly, been taken to task for this. The critique of Orientalism would lose much of its punch if the Orientalist representations turned out to be accurate – and Said’s method provides no way of determining that they weren’t.)

The most exciting and polished work of scholarship I’ve seen in this new way of thinking is Andrew Nicholson’s excellent Unifying Hinduism. Nicholson’s book is a study of Vedānta, the Indian philosophical tradition that sees itself as expounding the Upaniṣads. He turns a close and critical eye on nineteenth-century scholars like Richard Garbe and A.E. Gough, pointing out their misrepresentations of Vedānta tradition and how many of those misrepresentations endure today (especially with respect to Vijñānabhikṣu, the main subject of his study). But he also points out the continuities of these Orientalists with the earlier tradition. They got it from somewhere. Especially, their views – frequently promoting Advaita Vedānta as the supreme Vedāntic tradition and disparaging others – derived from medieval Indian doxographies, like the Sarva Darśana Saṅgraha of Mādhava (which Gough translated). They misrepresented Indian tradition by emphasizing one aspect of the tradition over another, but they did so in a way that premodern Indians themselves had done. They followed a native Indian tradition; they were not just making stuff up. (David McMahan’s take on Yavanayāna is similar in many ways.)

Nicholson’s approach, I think, has parallels among modern Western practitioners of Asian traditions, a number of whom are becoming willing to affirm that yes, their tradition is different from the traditions of antiquity – but accept this newness and defend, in some way, its faithfulness to older tradiion. Mark Schmanko did something like this a while ago in his very thoughtful defence of Wilber to me: acknowledging that mysticism and perennialism were new and modern, but still tying them back to older tradition. Those who have read my own writings on Yavanayāna will know how sympathetic I am to this view: its newness does not make it bad.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

22 thoughts on “A synthesis beyond Orientalism

  1. Pingback: A synthesis beyond Orientalism | Love of All Wisdom

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Amod!

    I’d like to add that parts of my critique of Said were borrowed from other scholars, especially Charles Hallisey and Sheldon Pollock. In an article discussing the way modern interpreters of Buddhism such as T.W. Rhys Davids borrowed the discourses of early Buddhists for his own ends, Hallisey used the term “intercultural mimesis” (http://books.google.com/books/about/Curators_of_the_Buddha.html?id=7PWAS2viSfoC). My teacher Sheldon Pollock discussed a similar phenomenon in his article “Deep Orientalism” (http://books.google.com/books/about/Orientalism_and_the_Postcolonial_Predica.html?id=8YRA2Y58TCYC).

    For a long time it has struck me how important it is for Hindus and Buddhists today to assert that their beliefs and practices are very, very old–in the case of Buddhists, often asserting that they are the same ones held by the historical Buddha. So, when Mark Singleton (http://books.google.com/books/about/Yoga_Body_The_Origins_of_Modern_Posture.html?id=tUgBIrn5REwC) pointed out that many of the things yogis do today date back less than 100 years, it created a crisis in some sectors of the N. American yoga community.

    In most ways, we Americans are obsessed with newness. But when it comes to Buddhism and Hinduism, we want that “old time religion!”

  3. A similar claim has been made by Edwin Bryant in his work (2002, in Squarcini (ed.)) on the origins of the concept of “Hindū” (basically claiming that there are good reasons to be suspicious about it, but that when we say that there is no Hinduism at all, we are doing injustice to many Indians who claimed and claim to be Hindūs). A further important milestone in the debate is Halbfass’ contribution to Beyond Orientalism (Franco, Preisendanz (eds.)), where he expresses his wish to go beyond orientalism, but also beyond anti-orientalism.

  4. Amod, this is a great post. I wrote out some long musings, but I am not sure if they are all apt. Let me just say that I am in agreement with much of what you said. As an aside, in retrospect, as a teenager who was fascinated with Indian thought, I was a bit of a perennialist myself, I can say, and am sympathetic to some of their core concerns, but definitely not with their oversimplifications and ahistorical projections.

    I do have a question, perhaps tangential to your deeper point, but one that I have thought about from time to time. It involves the question of intellectual charity as a component of intellectual engagement: do you think that post-Said, it is too easy or fashionable in our field, broadly construed, to simply dismiss a scholar, particularly a modern one, because she or he has become identified with distasteful political movements, social attitudes, or unsavory ideas?

    Honestly, I am not sure, and don’t have a ready follow up with my opinion (though I have some examples in mind of people like Heidegger–not our field, but still- and Frauwallner, who have had about the worst loyalties possible and are still taken seriously). I’m really wondering what your opinion is.

  5. Thanks, Amod. Let me try to put them together. . .

    In the meantime, what did you mean by “elitist” regarding the Theosophists. Should that matter? Or am I not understanding a certain use.

    • I mean that the Theosophists viewed themselves, and those who’d had what they understood to be similar mystical experiences, as the élite who understood the true meaning of every tradition. Putting themselves in the company of Jesus and the Buddha and Śaṅkara, as opposed to the majority of everyday practitioners out there who didn’t get what their own traditions were about.

  6. Got it. Thanks.

    It’s funny, because in a way they then committed the same sorts of hubristic behaviors that Bryant and others have warned us to careful about, as pointed out above.

  7. And yet some Theosophists have often in fact been more knowledgeable than others about Indian traditions: think of Gandhi learning about the Gita and other matters from Theosophists or the role of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott in the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In any case, I think we should refrain from gross generalizations about Theosophy and Theosophists. Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive about this topic as I intimately know some rather remarkable and gifted Theosophists (This includes the mother of the writer Pico Iyer. Pico wrote about his late father, Raghavn Iyer…and Grahame Greene, in his latest book, The Man Within My Head. His mother is my best friend and is singularly responsible for me entering the academic world in my mid-forties, after some years as a finish carpenter.), and thus think we should be careful not to indulge in grandiose or gross generalizations about either Theosophy or Theosophists. In my experience (anecdotal, and a small sample, to be sure), they do not fit the stereotypes and caricatures. I may find time to write more about this elsewhere but permit me to end by saying I’m astonished as to how and puzzled as to why Theosophists tend to attract both scorn and snide dismissal from many academics (present parties excluded). There does not seem to be the same degree or kind of concern for “impartiality” or sufficient measure of objectivity, or even the principle of charity evidenced in writing about other traditions and worldviews.

    • That’s fair, Patrick. I suspect my tone in the comment to Matthew above was too dismissive. I suppose part of it comes out of an article I published last year on Ken Wilber, whose own perennialism is very much like that of the Theosophists and leads him to gross misinterpretations of the traditions he studies – but I say that while being in very close sympathy with the overall aims of Wilber’s project.

      More generally, though, for me it’s important to view philosophical traditions as live options and partners in one’s conversation, and that in turn means being ready to call them out for being wrong. That applies whether you’re dealing with Advaitins, Theosophists or postmodernists – and overall it may be the latter I disagree with most.

    • This is a fair reminder, Patrick.

      In my longer, unposted thoughts, I was going to say that we should extend as much charity to modern scholars and movements as we do to our classical thinkers, who were, from our current perspective, a bit backward socially.

      • Further, insofar as they are advocates of an esotericism that sees the uninitiated as superficial adherents of a religious culture, this sort of elitism is common in tantric and other sorts of movements, and indeed, is part of the playful jousts and secretive conversations of the Upanishads themselves.

        And, of course, most of our heroes in India were Brahmin men speaking to other Brahmin men. And yet, they are still worthy of philosophical respect.

        • Finally, I tend not to understand the use of “elitism”. When I ask people what they mean when they use it to disparage someone or some people, they usually end up explaining it in terms of something else, racism, sexism, or class prejudices.

          But, separated from these things, elitism as such seems obviously correct in this sense: those who are skilled or expert in a domain of knowledge or inquiry do in fact have a greater qualification in that regard than do other people. I am not sure why believing this would make somebody bad. Chances are, what’s wrong about this sort of attitude is that most people aren’t quite as “elite” as they think they are, and are thus guilty of hubris and false pride.

          • I agree with you that “those who are skilled or expert in a domain of knowledge or inquiry do in fact have a greater qualification in that regard than do other people.” I used “élitist” with respect to the Theosophists’ belief that they were the skilled experts on each tradition out there, as opposed to others well versed in any given tradition who’d spent far longer with it than the Theosophists themselves had. I suspect this may have reflected at least some amount of class prejudice.

            It’s fair to say, though, that this kind of attitude is shared by a number of indigenous Indian traditions (especially Advaitins) and by many contemporary social-scientific scholars of religion – not least those who are determinedly anti-perennialist and anti-theosophical. (The common approach that even your fellow scholars, let alone everyday practitioners, are nothing more than “data”.)

  8. The thing about Perennialism is that it involves a noetic humility which presupposes an adherence to the practices of of one’s native tradition. ‘Elite’ has taken a pejorative taint but really there have been quite a few notable people who have espoused Perennialism.

    • Hi Michael – I am not sure about that. I think many perennialists tend to move well beyond their native tradition – that’s one of the things that gets them interested in perennialism in the first place.

  9. Pingback: Which reviews did you like more? The Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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