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Unifying Hinduism has won the 2011 award for Best First Book in the History of Religions from the American Academy of Religion 

Unifying Hinduism
Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History
South Asia Across the Disciplines Series

A Short Interview with Andrew J. Nicholson
whose new book Unifying Hinduism is a brilliant exploration of some of the central genealogies of Hinduism:

Q1: Would it be true to say that your book provides a prehistory of modern Hindu thinkers we’re familiar with, such as Vivekananda, Gandhi and Radhakrishnan? Can we get a better sense of their intellectual genealogy by reading your book?

A1: Yes, one of my goals in writing this book was to do just that. As important as I think Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism is for South Asian Studies, we are in a period when the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Said criticized Orientalists like Bernard Lewis for insisting that the modern history of Asian societies can only be understood in reference to the essential character of the society—which, for Lewis, would mean that medieval Islamic theology is the key to understanding the current upheavals in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. That, of course, is nonsense.

But it is also a mistake to think that the arrival of the British in South Asia led to an almost instantaneous and complete erasure of pre-modernity. In particular, I focus on certain new ideas that gained currency between the 14th and 17th centuries among Sanskrit intellectuals. Perhaps the most significant of these ideas was that certain philosophies—particularly Advaita Vedanta, but also the Samkhya and Yoga schools, along with various theistic traditions such as Ramanuja’s in Tamil Nadu and Abhinavagupta’s in Kashmir—are in fundamental agreement with one another. It was only in this late medieval period that such schools were together labeled “orthodox” (astika) and contrasted with the Buddhist and Jain “heterodox” (nastika) schools. The notion that these schools were in basic agreement was a precursor of the idea that “Hindooism,” or Hinduism as we call it today, is a single unified tradition. Without these earlier developments, Vivekananda could not have spread his Hindu gospel of “practical Vedanta” across the United States and Europe.

Q2: Two recent works on Hinduism from the USA which have greatly interested our readers have been Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men and Simona Sawhney’s The Modernity of Sanskrit. Does your work link with theirs, and is it part of a wider trajectory taken in recent years by the study of Hindu philosophy in the West?

There is no doubt that Sheldon Pollock’s work has influenced mine. He was, after all, my mentor at the University of Chicago! One of his important recent initiatives is the research project “Sanskrit Knowledge-Systems on the Eve of Colonialism,” undertaken in order to shift attention to the late medieval period. Traditionally, Indologists have had a fetish for origins, trying, for instance, to reconstruct the authentic philosophy of the early Upanisads or of the historical Buddha. According to Orientalist historiography, everything went downhill from there, particularly after the Muslims came and destroyed everything of value in Indian society. But this degeneration narrative is false. The school of New Logic (Navya Nyaya) is one well-documented example of the extraordinary vitality of Indian philosophy in the 14th century. Other scholars have shown similarly important new developments in Sanskrit poetics, grammar, and in Mimamsa hermeneutics in the late medieval period. But no one before me had undertaken a revisionist history of Vedanta philosophy; perhaps the Orientalists’ understanding of Vedanta as existing unchanged since the time of the Upanisads was just too powerful of a narrative. So updating our knowledge of Vedanta, especially late Vedanta, was one of my main objectives.

Sawhney’s book focuses largely on the uses to which Sanskrit texts have been put in the modern period, often to further certain ideologies that have little to do with those texts themselves. Although my book focuses primarily on the medieval period, I also make brief forays into the modern period to discuss universalist interpretations of Hindu tradition such as by Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan. For instance, many Hindus regard the phrase sanatana dharma to be a synonym for “Hinduism,” and believe that the notion of a single sanatana dharma, or “eternal religion,” goes back at least to the Rg Veda. Few people are aware that this phrase was popularized first in the writings of Aurobindo. He borrowed the notion of Hinduism as sanatana dharma from the theosophist Annie Besant’s 1903 book Sanatana Dharma: An Elementary Text-book of Hindu Religion and Ethics. There is a great deal of misinformation nowadays about Hinduism and Indian history, and I think that Sanskrit scholars have a responsibility to act as public intellectuals in order to bring clarity to these debates. So, for instance, I gave a lecture in Varanasi recently on the topic of the history of yoga, another one of my interests. Contrary to opinions one finds on the internet, yoga was a pan-Indian phenomenon shared by Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, and even some Muslims. It was certainly never the “intellectual property” of Hinduism.

Q3: In what new ways do you think your work opens up Hindu philosophy to historians, sociologists, political philosophers, and serious readers of scholarship on Indian intellectual traditions?

There is a stigma surrounding the study of Vedanta philosophy that has caused it to fall out of favor with a certain type of 21st century intellectual. In earlier times Vedanta was a favorite of the Orientalists who sought to portray Sankara’s idealist philosophy as the essence of the Indian mind. Nowadays it is one of the favorites of some new age movements who have re-interpreted Advaita Vedanta as a quantum mysticism proving that the physical world doesn’t exist. I try to dispel some of these bizarre and mistaken ideas about Vedanta by grounding my investigations in India’s intellectual history, and by showing that most Vedantic schools are not “idealist” in their outlook.

As Dipesh Chakrabarty has suggested, the rehabilitation of non-Western philosophies is an important part of the project of “provincializing Europe.” I argue that Buddhist and Hindu philosophers can be important theoretical resources for the critique of neo-liberal capitalism. Specifically, concepts common to Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain thinkers such as aparigraha (non-acquisition) are powerful tools to debunk the idea that human beings are rational agents striving to maximize their individual self-interest through the accumulation of goods. Pre-modern intellectuals understood that desire unchecked leads to suffering, not happiness. I am especially interested in some of the realist Vedanta traditions in pre-modern India that, contrary to the Orientalist portrayal of Vedanta as idealist and world-negating, were profoundly concerned with karma and our ethical engagement with other beings in the world.

Q4: Could you tell us something about your own early life and education which drew you to this area of study, and anything illuminating or insightful that your personal everyday experience of Indian life has provided to your study of Hindu thought?

A4: I started practicing yoga in 1987 as a teenager in the midwestern United States. I was fascinated by Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, and by their connections to philosophy in Europe, especially in Germany. I arrived in college certain that I wanted to study Sanskrit and travel to India. I made it to India first in 1992, staying in Bihar, and expecting to see everyone chanting OM and sitting in lotus position. Needless to say, seeing the economic conditions there was the beginning of my true education. And being in India during the event in Ayodhya on December 6 and its violent aftermath led to a political awakening. As an American, I was aware of the way that some modern Christians re-interpret religion to make it a vehicle of hate, but I hadn’t realized how similar Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu nationalism are to the Christian fundamentalism that continues to influence politics in my native country. As I remark in the final section of my book, one of the jobs of the historian is to fight against the superimposition of modern ideologies onto pre-modern history, whether they be ideologies of the right or of the left.

Q5: What is next in your plans? Do you have any other projects in the works that you would care to share?

A5: Scheduled for publication in 2012 is my next book, entitled Isvara Gita: The Secret Yoga of Lord Siva. Not many people are aware that there are dozens of “Gitas” other than the Bhagavad Gita. This book is my translation of and commentary on an eighth century Sanskrit text, “The Song of Lord Siva” (Isvara Gita). The text contains some fascinating passages describing yoga practices that should help dispel the idea that yoga is all about withdrawal inside oneself (or “enstasis,” as suggested by Mircea Eliade). Instead, in Indian history yoga was more often understood as a way of “linking” oneself to other beings. (The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit verb yuj, “to yoke.”) The notion of yogis in India as being quietistic or passive is utterly false, especially given what we now know about ascetic orders in India and their roles in politics, economics, and even military history. The group who composed the Isvara Gita was known as the Pasupatas. Among other things, they were responsible for introducing the worship of Siva to Varanasi and introducing the idea that Varanasi is a particularly holy place.

This translation came out of a larger research project, a book tentatively entitled Spiritual Exercises: A History of Yoga from Ancient India to the Contemporary World. My original idea was a new history that seeks to understand yoga in light of the theories of Pierre Hadot, Peter Brown, and the later works of Foucault. This gets back to my interest in how the recovery of yogic philosophies can act as a remedy for much of what makes us miserable in the early 21st century: the ever-accelerating commodification of human and non-human beings and the insistence that all intellectual production must be “useful” (in other words, contributing to enhanced economic productivity or enabling us to gratify our innate individual desires). And ironically, yoga itself has become a commodity. There are yoga boutiques in New York selling hundred-dollar moisture-wicking pants to help yogis and yoginis show off their assets during class. The practitioners in yoga studios in New York and New Delhi are generally more interested in their triceps than they are in self-transformation. But perhaps we are in a “teachable moment,” as the educators say.

Some postcolonial theorists argue that the idea of a single system of belief known as “Hinduism” is a creation of nineteenth-century British imperialists. Andrew J. Nicholson introduces another perspective: although a unified Hindu identity is not as ancient as some Hindus claim, it has its roots in innovations within South Asian philosophy from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. During this time, thinkers treated the philosophies of Vedanta, Samkhya, and Yoga, along with the worshippers of Visnu, Siva, and Sakti, as belonging to a single system of belief and practice. Instead of seeing such groups as separate and contradictory, they re-envisioned them as separate rivers leading to the ocean of Brahman, the ultimate reality.

Drawing on the writings of philosophers from late medieval and early modern traditions, including Vijnanabhiksu, Madhava, and Madhusudana Sarasvati, Nicholson shows how influential thinkers portrayed Vedanta philosophy as the ultimate unifier of diverse belief systems. This project paved the way for the work of later Hindu reformers, such as Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan, and Gandhi, whose teachings promoted the notion that all world religions belong to a single spiritual unity. In his study, Nicholson also critiques the way in which Eurocentric concepts — like monism and dualism, idealism and realism, theism and atheism, and orthodoxy and heterodoxy — have come to dominate modern discourses on Indian philosophy.

ANDREW J. NICHOLSON is Assistant Professor of Hinduism and Indian intellectual history in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at Stony Brook University.

Hardback / 280pp / Rs 750 / ISBN 81-7824-328-8 / South Asia rights / 2011
Copublished by Columbia University Press


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