Shana Sippy, PhD
Critical Hindu Studies Pedagogies
Supported by a Large Grant from the Wabash Center for Learning and Teaching Theology
The standard approach to teaching Hinduism has changed very little since the mid-20th century. Although engagement with some measure of lived religious traditions has increasingly been added into Hindu Studies courses, the overall framing of the material has remained generally chronological, privileging Sanskritic, brahminical, and pre-modern traditions. This pedagogical model replicates the standard Orientalist narrative about Hindu traditions since the colonial period. Scholars, ourselves included, have often tried to address the Orientalist nature of this narrative. However, we still find it challenging to unlearn the pedagogies that have shaped our own training and, as a result of the lacuna in the field’s recognized/normative sources and methodologies, we see our students replicating problematic paradigms in their written and oral assignments throughout the semester. Our students have not yet developed the critical skills to discern the political agendas in websites like Indiafacts.org or HinduAmerican.org, where the source material appears scholarly and credible but is laden with Hindu right-wing agendas. For example, the ways that students conflate Indian and Hindu, conceptualize the historicity of Hindu mythological events, or understand the history of ancient South Asia are often shaped by sources like these. These narratives circulate widely in communities and have serious ramifications in communities with regard to communalism, caste-based and gender-based violence and Islamophobia.
This is in part because, while the “invention of ‘Hinduism’” has long been a debated topic within religious studies, less explored are the casteist, racist, and heteropatriarchal underpinnings of the field and the added complexity our identities as racialized scholars bring to the classroom. The Feminist Critical Hindu Studies (FCHS) Collective initiated a 6-year Intersectional Hindu Studies Seminar to help racialized scholars interrogate their positionality and to support the development of intersectional, feminist, and critical race theory pedagogies within Hindu Studies.
We seek to bring alternative texts into the classroom changes the way that students approach the topic of Hinduism. This work is vital because an awareness of these intersections directly impacts how we seek to teach Hindu Studies. Using the idea of Hindu formations, we hope students will come to better understand the ways in which religious traditions emerge over time and are deployed to various ends. FCHS asserts that the categories—Hinduism and Hindu—not only arise in conjunction with forms of white supremacy and caste supremacy, but are imbricated with them. We have devised a set of six questions (see below) to help us reimagine pedagogical approaches to Hindu Studies. Bringing together scholars who specialize in a range of different periods, regions, and areas of inquiry within the field, this grant would enable us to explore how awareness of our own positionality, and our desire to rethink conventional modes of teaching Hinduism with a focus on forms of oppression and marginalization changes our approach in the classroom. As scholars who teach in North American contexts, we are mindful of the importance of thinking about how white supremacy has shaped our field and the traditional approaches to teaching about South Asian and Hindu identity and communities.
How does a social justice teaching approach transform the ways that we teach Hinduism? How do the settings and demographic compositions of the classrooms in which we teach change how we approach our subject? Even with our shared commitments to Critical Hindu Studies, we recognize that there is no single pedagogical approach that will work to achieve our goals. We want to explore how Critical Hindu Studies pedagogies might be employed in classrooms with varying forms and levels of diversity (religious, racial, sexuality, class, caste, ethnicity, etc.). Some of us teach in classrooms with a majority of white Christian students who have never encountered Hindu traditions, while others teach in classrooms where South Asian students and other racialized students are the majority. Convening as a group over the summer, 2022, at an all day symposium in November, 2022, and continuing to work through the spring, 2023 will allow us to brainstorm together about how to address the pedagogical issues that emerge in these different spaces.
The members of FCHS have been meeting together with 10 other scholars through the American Academy of Religion’s Intersectional Hindu Studies Seminar, which we created as an outgrowth of our Wabash Small Project Grant in an effort to broaden the reach, scholarly orientations, and personal experiences within our conversation and collaboration. Such a collective task has never been done in our field, and collaboration forms the basis for our innovative approach. We are a group of scholars from a variety of institutional contexts (liberal arts colleges, state universities, and research universities) in both the United States and Canada. The members of our seminar are at a range of stages in their careers, including tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, contingent faculty, and graduate students, and are committed to this collective project.
Together we have responded to Sara Ahmed’s call in Queer Phenomenology to consider how we become oriented and disoriented in Hindu Studies. If Hindu Studies is our familiar room, its walls rest on the foundations of white supremacy, caste oppression, and heteropatriarchy. However often we might name them, these forms of oppression continue to be internalized, embodied, and rendered invisible in praxis and scholarship. The field of Hindu Studies has been so deeply shaped by colonial and orientalist histories that we do not know how to draw a map, let alone read it, without falling back on hierarchical paradigms.
The goals of the FCHS Collective and the Intersectional Hindu Studies seminar are to disorient the field of Hindu Studies and “re-search” the spaces, practices, and bodies that inhabit archives and academic institutions. To “re-search” means to look again at the matter of study to consider what remains unwritten, to see those who are unseen or have been violently erased, and to identify disparaged sites of knowledge. While engaging in this research ourselves, as teachers our goal is for our students to develop the skills necessary to perform this research themselves. This means bringing new sources to the classroom, collaborating on strategies for examining the archives, and developing critical reading skills.
Furthermore, as a result of the COVID pandemic and new ways that the public sphere and our academic institutions are reckoning anew with systemic racism and casteism, we have all found ourselves engaged in processes of reorientation. As racialized scholars of South Asian religions, many of us have also found ourselves having to engage in intensive educational and advocacy efforts within our institutions. In response to the Black Lives Matter Movement, new awareness about caste discrimination in North American institutions, and a rise in Anti-Asian hatred, many of us have taken on new roles as public scholars. Within this time of change and isolation, our Collective and the Seminar has provided a grounding and nourishing space where we could discuss these issues and strategize about our work within our classrooms, our specific institutions, and the academy more broadly.
Framing Pedagogical Questions
With the aforementioned problems and challenges in mind, the questions and concerns we seek to address together in this grant include:
How does traditional teaching of Hinduism involve the racialized construction of ‘insider' and 'outsider’ and address the re/production of the Orientalist gaze in contemporary Hindu Studies?
How, as racialized/religiously identified scholars of Hinduism, are we called upon to perform ‘authenticity’ in pedagogic and other academic environments? How do these “demands” and assumptions about our identities create distinctive challenges for our teaching and how might we address them?
How can we normalize the use of intersectional and feminist approaches in our teaching of Hindu Studies?
What are some ways we can challenge the normative casteist, Islamophobic, racist, sexist, and anti-Black perspectives that are found within standard texts and teaching paradigms within the field?
Conversely, how can we incorporate commonly marginalized perspectives (with respect to caste, sexuality, class) into the standard narrative within Hindu Studies?
How can our approaches to teaching, syllabi creation, and the chronological contextualization of Hindu traditions respond to and reframe the ways in which post-colonial and critical theory is deployed by Hindu nationalists and supremacists?
Our goals in this grant are twofold: (1) to develop effective practices for teaching Critical Hindu Studies as racialized scholars and (2) to help reform teaching within the field of Hindu Studies. With funding from this grant, we hope to ultimately create new resources that address some of the problems that arise in the conventional historical and thematic approaches to teaching Hinduism. As a part of our work, we seek to engage in dialogue and collaborative processes that help us to envision new modules for undergraduate and graduate classes that incorporate a Critical Hindu Studies approach. Possible module topics include:
1. Caste oppression and social justice
For the most part, issues of caste and social justice are rarely taught in Hindu Studies. Conventionally, caste is only introduced through elite brahmanical Sanskrit sources, giving no voice to the perspective of Dalit (oppressed caste) communities. When matters of social justice or caste critique are taught, they are usually approached through a Gandhian lens or with reference to medieval-poet saints who challenged conventional norms. These approaches miss some of the most important questions with respect to enduring forms of caste oppression and are often obscure, for example, how figures like Gandhi actually perpetuated caste marginalization and oppression, despite assumptions about his liberatory discourse.
2. Feminist and critical approaches to gender and sexuality
Although the intervention of lived religion in the mid-1990s brought women’s experiences and perspectives into the classroom, this does not examine how gender is constructed and still centers the cisheterosexual experiences. Rarely is an intersectional approach used when thinking about Hindu formations and gender; issues of caste, class, gender and sexuality are often taught in siloed ways. Furthermore, it is critical that we draw attention to how ritual practices serve as vehicles through which norms of gender and sexuality are policed and maintained, as well as resisted and reinterpreted.
3. Sanskritic and vernacular forms of Hinduism
Academic discourse has shifted from prioritizing Sanskrit textual sources to including and focusing on vernacular sources in oral and written format, but the complexity and diversity of vernacular sources is as yet understudied, especially with regards to the implicit hierarchy of vernacular sources based on their origin in varied caste and gendered contexts. Therefore, in addition to simply including vernacular sources alongside Sanskritic ones, our classrooms must also include critical discussion on the topography of vernacular Hinduisms.
4. Contexts for Hindu belief, identity and praxis in diaspora
While studies of Hinduism in diasporic context are increasing, these studies still conflate Indian and Hinduness and rarely attend to the racialized experiences that shape Hindu formations. The experiences of Indo-Caribbean Hindu communities, as well as those in other parts of Asia, Africa, and North America are usually relegated to footnotes or epilogues in most Hindu Studies classes. Further, transnational and diasporic formations, shaped by forces of globalization and new forms of media, dramatically change how we understand articulations of Hinduism since the 19th century both outside of India and within it.
5. Hindutva and other Political iterations of Hinduism transnationally
Over the past 90 years, and especially since the mid-1980s, Hindu formations have been profoundly shaped by Hindu right-wing (Hindutva) movements. These groups are deeply invested in the representation and teaching of Hinduism within the academy. In most classroom settings, Hindutva endeavors are presented as a part of a single unit that frames political iterations of Hinduism as marginal and modern. Not enough attention is paid to the ways in which Hindutva formations are imbricated in what might otherwise be seen as normative or non-political Hindu settings. This type of focus can provide important insights into the ways in which things such as history and sacred narratives are contested and deployed with serious material and physical consequences, helping us to consider how knowledge is never neutral.
6. Cooptation of decolonizing and social justice language in political discourse
In recent years, right-wing political Hindu responses to academic critique have strategically co-opted the language of decolonization and social justice to legitimize their critique of academic discourse and promote a homogenous understanding of Hinduism. The problem with this co-optation is that while these terms reference real experiences of colonization and marginalization, they create equivalencies between South Asian and Hindu marginalization and the deep and enduring racism and dispossession of Black and indigenous communities. Such discourse also invalidates and dismisses narratives that arise from oppressed groups within the South Asian context. For many of our students, especially when exposed to this discourse uncritically, the language of decolonization, for example, is particularly compelling. These groups have been remarkably effective in recent years at reaching college campuses and spreading their message to students. Bringing a robust and nuanced discussion of these strategies into the classroom can help students to better understand not only the aims of modern Hindutva movements but also the ways that political groups more broadly co-opt social justice and progressive language to further their goals.
With the background work that this grant enables us to perform, we envision working towards our long-term objective of developing a reader in Critical Hindu Studies to help scholars explore new source material and help them to implement a Critical Hindu Studies approach in both their scholarship and classrooms.
Critical Hindu Studies Working Group
Shana Sippy, Associate Professor of Religion, Centre College, project director/ financial contact
Sailaja Krishnamurti, Head, Department of Gender Studies, Queen's University, project director
Prea Persaud, Visiting Instructor of Religion, Swarthmore College/Ph.D. Candidate University of Florida and project manager
Shreena Gandhi, Fixed Term Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Michigan State
Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Visweswara Rao and Sita Koppaka Associate Professor of Telugu Culture, Literature and History, Emory University
Rupa Pillai, Senior Lecturer in Asian American Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Arun Chaudhuri, Sessional Assistant Professor, York University
Marko Geslani, Associate Professor, Religious Studies, University of South Carolina
Jamal Jones, Assistant Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin Madison
Varun Khanna, Visiting Assistant Professor Classics and Asian Studies, Swarthmore College
Vijaya Nagarajan, Associate Professor Department of Theology and Religious Studies and the Program in Environmental Studies, University of San Francisco
Dheepa Sundaram, Assistant Professor, Religious Studies, University of Denver