The double standard of misinterpretation

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.

1. Tull, Herman W. 1991. “F. Max Muller and A.B. Keith: ‘twaddle’, the ‘stupid’ myth, and the disease of Indology.” Numen 38(1): 27-58.

24 Replies to “The double standard of misinterpretation”

  1. Is it really a double standard to distinguish between cultural imperialism (with its misappropriations and orientalisms) and the transformations that occur *within* a tradition?

    • Why is that the divide to be made? Henry Steel Olcott is typically a target of this criticism and, as an American, could be counted as a “cultural imperialist” – but his thought was very similar to that of Dharmapāla, who was within the tradition. Does Olcott’s thought count as “balderdash” and “twaddle” where Dharmapāla’s doesn’t, even when they are saying the exact same things?

      And – even assuming we can delineate the boundaries of a tradition relatively unproblematically – does all thought outside a tradition count as “cultural imperialism”? If so, the Chinese adoption of Buddhism is cultural imperialism; are you willing to accept that consequence? If not, the Germans and the Americans did not conquer India any more than China did; is the thought of German and American Theosophists still cultural imperialism?

  2. I can’t comment on your blog for some reason. But in your post on Protestant Buddhism, you seem to have misrepresented the way the term Protestant Buddhism was initially used and to have misrepresented the thrust of Greg Schopen arguments about the sources of scholarship.

    In the first case, as I understand it, Sri Lankan Buddhists reformed their organisations partly in response to pressure from British missionaries to convert to Christianity, but did so in ways that employed some tropes commonly found in Protestant Christianity. Particularly Protestant Buddhists played down the role of the Bhikkhu Sangha and encouraged Buddhists to seek their own salvation. You seem to imply that it is only used pejoratively, but my sense is that it wasn’t meant to be so. It was descriptive.

    In the case of Schopen we have to remember that he is first and foremost a philologist (with a command of many languages) who has continued to write about texts and their role in Buddhism. His complaint against Buddhist studies was not that we should abandon the study of texts, but that we should take into account all of the sources we have at our disposal, especially archaeology, but including art and epigraphy. Buddhist studies has frequently ignored archaeology, and Schopen has pointed out that this is detrimental because archaeology tells a different story that needs to be better integrated into our narratives about the history of Buddhism.

    I can’t comment on your essay here.

    • Love of All Wisdom closes comments on posts more than three months old, because the vast majority of comments on old posts tend to be spam. (Yours is an exception, of course.)

      Schopen wants to see a method where “texts would have been judged significant only if they could be shown to be related to what religious people actually did.” (That’s a direct quote.) I don’t have any problem using archaeology and numismatics to correct the historical record we have with the texts; I think that’s a good idea. But Schopen goes much further. For him, the non-textual evidence sets the standard by which texts are to be judged important for study. No philosopher can or should accept that approach.

      As to whether Protestant Buddhism is intended as pejorative or descriptive, I suppose we’d need to dig deeper into the literature (and perhaps even the biographies of its authors) to establish that. Certainly in oral exchanges with people like Gimello, it has been a pejorative posing as a descriptive, a way of saying this Buddhism is not really Buddhism because it’s actually Protestantism in disguise.

  3. Very interesting Amod: one thing this calls to mind is the occasionally dismissive attitudes toward Gandhi’s allegorical interpretation of the Gītā, perhaps in part owing to the influence of Theosophists (e.g., T. Subba Row) on his rather idiosyncratic (although not implausible) understanding of same. [I may be especially sensitive to this owing to the fact that my best friend and former teacher, Nandini Iyer is a Theosophist (as was her late husband, Raghavan Iyer, who penned a nonpareil study of Gandhi’s moral and political thought).]

  4. Scope for juxtaposing incongruences in arguments by commentators is limitless unless a firm point of reference is affirmed. As regards the specific issues raised here, Sri Aurobindo can be safely regarded as an authority and he would seem to concur with Muller but not fully with Besant. The Life Divine remains a repository of knowledge on such matters. [TNM55]

  5. Well, I guess that in a few/some centuries Annie Besant will become a mainstream object of study (she already is now, but not everyone knows about it). Until now, scholars like Tull probably feel they have to warn students/unexperienced readers that her books (or the ones by Bhaktivedanta Svamin, etc.) are not “scholarly” interpretations of the Indian traditions, but rather “re-interpretations” of it. Now, you might object that there is no such thing as a “scholar”, detached research. I would agree that it is utopic, but I can still see what Tull’s purpose would be in pointing out the difference between the two approaches. I would also warn my students if the local TV would display a documentary on “Hinduism” directed by, say, a zealous Christian missionary —although I would be interested in watching it exactly insofar as it distorts its object.

    • If all Tull were saying was “Besant’s view does not live up to our standards for scholarship”, that’s fine, I would have no problem with it. But “balderdash” is much stronger language than that – and it is the exact sort of language that Tull condemns as a “disease” in Max Müller. He is suffering from the very disease he diagnoses. If Besant is balderdash, so is Sāyaṇa.

  6. I’m a bit late to the party; it’s been the first week of school. But I do appreciate, Amod, the way that you illustrate a kind of bias into which we antiquarians easily fall: the notion that the older it is, the more it represents the “real tradition.” Elsewhere, I called this an “originalist bias”.

    One place it comes up is regarding theism in Nyaya/Vaisheshika (sorry for lack of diacritics; I am rushed and this computer isn’t set up to make it easy). Theism isn’t explicitly endorsed in the sutras for either school (it shows up, ambiguously in the fourth book of the Nyayasutras). But in Prashastapada and Vatsyayana, endorsement of theism is explicit. It is further developed in the rational theology of Uddyotakara and in the fragmentary works of some lost early authors. We know that its apex is probably in the work of Udayana.

    Some scholars (good ones!) repeat claims like “theism is a late addition to Nyaya/Vaisheshika”, as if it is an add-on, a vestigal cultural overlay to the “real thing”, perhaps motivated by the rise of bhakti, or some tangential philosophical problem or whatever.

    But one could just as easily argue (imho, *much more easily*) that it is simply the evolution of the inherent philosophical tendencies of the school (holism, defense of intention and teleology as real and part of the inventory of reality, a defense of selfhood as fundamental to reality, etc., etc.).

    This is but one example. I will say, though, I sometimes find that antiquarian bias in myself as well. The closer we get to the modern times, it is easily to place relevant thinkers in some other category, as if they have no relation to the classical traditions. In many cases, they do. Perhaps a good example of this would be Hariharananda Aranya, the 19th century Samkhya-yogin. Happily, people do see him as part of the classical tradition.

    • Important points, Matthew. I am sympathetic but they go further than my own point. I suppose the important question here is the extent to which the tradition’s members themselves take an antiquarian approach. It’s not as if the traditions themselves typically avoid antiquarianism and originalism. When you claim that you are doing nothing new but simply presenting what’s already there in the Veda, you do open yourself up to criticism of this sort – whether you are doing this from Besant’s position or from Sāyaṇa’s.

      In the case you mention, do you think Praśastapāda, say, would endorse the view that theism is an “evolution of the inherent philosophical tendencies of the school” – rather than something that was already believed by the author of the Vaiśeṣika Sūtra?

      • Well, probably not, but it’s another issue. The classical thinkers do in fact innovate, but they strive to find connections, however tenuous, to the most ancient strata of the tradition available to them, minimizing their own contributions.

        This is different from the bias in question, a modern academic one, saying their contributions are somehow alien to the core of the tradition.

        • I guess that for me these two approaches are very closely connected. It is because later thinkers claim to be faithful to the earlier representatives, and themselves identify those earlier representatives as the tradition’s core, that modern scholars can make a claim that the later thought is alien to the tradition’s core.

          I am very much in favour of the idea of acknowledging innovation as potentially a good thing – but in most traditions, doing that is itself an innovation.

    • Matthew, sorry for jumping in the discussion, but I think that the issue you raise as an example (namely theism in Vātsyāyana) is in itself really interesting. Would not you want to dedicate a separate post to it? I would be happy to share my thoughts about this issue with you (just as an appetiser: I am with you when you say that it can be an intrinsic development in Nyāya or Vaiśeṣika, but I would not say that “Vātsyāyana’s endorsement of theism is explicit” —at least if we understand “theism” as a central and foundational belief in one’s philosophy. There are main differences between Vātsyāyana’s and Udayana’s “theism”).

  7. Also, it’s hard to take the claim that genuine converts don’t count as real Hindus or Buddhists to be anything more than fashionable racism. By “convert” I mean people who have taken some formal connection to a tradition–or something analogous–and aren’t just dreamy hippies.

  8. Re: Matthew’s last comment

    I’ve encountered sentiment to the effect that Dalit conversions to Buddhism after B.R. Ambedkar were somehow less than genuine. On the other hand, in our town (and I suspect the phenomenon in this country extends beyond there), some people claim to be converts to Sufism (dreamy New Age types perhaps, but definitely not hippies!) who know absolutely nothing about Islam and sometimes go so far as to claim that one can be a Sufi without being at the same time a Muslim!

    • Here’s where I’m going to be my usual contrarian self and say I’m in some respects actually more sympathetic to the latter than the former. 🙂 One actually can be a Sufi without being a Muslim; or at least, there is long historical precedent for it. No less than Maimonides’s own son founded a school of Jewish Sufis:

      On the other hand… while I’m very sympathetic to the Dalit cause and admire Ambedkar as a political leader and his accomplishments, I have a very hard time viewing his approach to Buddhism as any more faithful than that of the Sufi hippies. As far as I can tell, he picked the tradition on purely miscellaneous grounds (“what’s a tradition that is Indian but not Hindu? Buddhism, that’ll do!”) and threw out somethng as central to all prior Indian Buddhism as the Four Noble Truths. Was it “twaddle” or “balderdash”? No, but it is scarcely any more (or less) Buddhist than some random Bostonian who thinks she’s a Buddhist because she likes shopping at Tibet stores (and is probably also sincere in that belief).

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