I have recently welcomed the corrective force of books like Andrew Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism, which remind us that modern appropriations of Indian tradition have their own continuity with the evolving past tradition. I now find myself regularly reminded just how much such a corrective is needed. I have noted plenty of examples before, as with respect to Gregory Schopen and Donald Lopez. But I recently found perhaps the most striking example in the works of the contemporary Sanskrit scholar Herman Tull.
In a 1991 article on the Indologists Max Müller and A.B. Keith, Tull deconstructed Müller’s and Keith’s privileging of early Vedic tradition over various Indian traditions that would follow it, such as Sāyaṇa’s commentary on the Vedas. Tull notes that for Müller
the original meaning was forgotten and then recreated in a degenerate form, a process made famous by Müller’s colorful phrase, the “disease of language.”… That Mülller perceived such “misunderstandings” to be a disease, rather than a reinvigoration-an adding of new meaning as a way of maintaining the health of a tradition that was becoming obsolete-reflects his idealization of the ancient Aryans, on the one hand, and his disdain for “priestcraft,” on the other hand.(42)1
Elsewhere Müller describes the Brāḥmana texts themselves as “twaddle, and what is worse, theological twaddle.” (quoted on Tull 43) Tull understandably dislikes Müller’s unkind characterization of the Brāḥmaṇas and commentaries; in his title he uses Müller’s own characterization against him, referring to Müller’s privileging of the ancient over the recent as the “disease of Indology”.
Tull’s criticisms of Müller are all fairly made. But now observe what happens when Tull turns his gaze on a later interpretation of Indian by a modern and non-Indian interpreter. If we examine Tull’s bibliography on karma in the Oxford Bibliographies series, we find that his description of Annie Besant‘s book on karma appears as follows:
One of Besant’s manifestos regarding the karma doctrine; beyond her observation that karma must be viewed as a fundamental law, this booklet is filled with balderdash, such as references to “the Lords of Karma, the mighty Angels of Judgement, the Recorders of the Past” and so forth.
If there is a difference between “balderdash” and “twaddle”, it is a small one. Here we find Tull treating a modern Western reinterpretation of karma with the exact same contempt that he criticized as a “disease” in Müller and Keith. When Sāyaṇa and the authors of the Brāḥmaṇas reinterpret the Vedas for their times, it is “a reinvigoration-an adding of new meaning as a way of maintaining the health of a tradition that was becoming obsolete”. When the Theosophist Annie Besant does it, it is “balderdash” – and Tull further adds that “the underlying elements of Theosophy appear today to be outlandish at best…”
What we have here is a double standard. Tull is of course hardly alone in exercising this double standard. The critics of “Protestant Buddhism” delight in pointing out the ways in which modern Buddhists “misinterpret” earlier tradition, but make no such criticisms of medieval Chinese traditions that deviate far more from the texts they claim to adhere to. It is just that in Tull we find this double standard expressed most clearly – even though it is expressed in different writings, many years apart.
What motivates this double standard? One answer that might leap to mind is white guilt, or (more charitably) awareness of white privilege: Besant and Yavanayāna Buddhists come out of a cultural complex (the West) that wields cultural power over India, in a way that Chinese Buddhists or medieval Indian commentators did not. (Deepak Sarma’s attack on “White Hindu Converts” claims to made on such grounds.) Or could attribute it to the kind of cultural relativism that allows us to criticize only “our” culture and not others’. But this answer will not suffice, not in all cases at least. For the criticism of modernized tradition is often applied to people like Anagarika Dharmapala, born and raised as colonial subjects in South Asia.
What else is going on, then? In the particular case of “Protestant Buddhism”, one may detect a certain Catholic sectarian agenda, but one hesitates to assign such motives to writers like Tull, who do not throw around the P-word as a term of abuse. One might cite the inevitable desire of academics to proclaim themselves smarter than everybody else. One might imagine it a simple desire to criticize everything that comes out of the colonial 19th century. But one might also cite the modern Romantic desire for authenticity: those whose reinterpretations are too close to us in time, like Besant and the Buddhist modernists, seem tainted by the pandering modern consumerism we yearn to escape, in a way that Tiantai and Sāyaṇa do not.
I doubt that we can reduce this double standard to a single cause. It seems likely that several of these factors are operating at once. The more important point, it seems to me, is to recognize that this double standard operates – and that, at least as far as I can tell, it is intellectually unjustified. If we may not dismiss Sāyaṇa as twaddle, then neither should we dismiss Annie Besant as balderdash. If we do consider ourselves in a position to judge Theosophical writings as balderdash for their misinterpretations/reinterpretations, then we are effectively putting ourselves in the position to judge the Brāḥmaṇas the same way, and we should not have such contempt for those who do.
I have previously expressed my own take on the proper attitude for a philosopher to take to such thinkers who interpret their predecessors differently from the predecessors’ original context (one form of innovation through conservatism). It is important to acknowledge innovation as innovation: Sāyaṇa’s Ṛgveda is not the Ṛgveda as it would be understood by its authors, just as Annie Besant’s karma doctrine is not the karma doctrine of the classical Budhist texts. But we may still respect the new systems as systems worthy of consideration in their own right. Disagreement with their interpretation of their predecessors does not have to mean disagreement with the content of their thought.