Becoming A Dharmic Researcher: A Responsibility, Not A Right

Fashion

The Video

I keep going back to that moment in the now-viral 2019 video, where Audrey Truschke, a history professor at Rutgers University, “responds” to Dr. Murali, an audience member while giving a talk in India. (I unpacked the moment here) [1]. Murali questions Truschke about her right to do research on Aurangzeb. He situates this question very clearly in the context of the history of genocide of Native Americans in the United States.

[Can a] descendant of a genocidal people sit as a judge? Is that moral or fair? [crowd shouts more] Yes, that nation stands on the dead bodies of Native Americans! What right does she have to come here and poke her nose into our history? [crowd is roaring, the speaker raises his voice to be heard No! Be Fair! Be Fair! Be Fair! Be fair! Is this justice?

Truschke responds

What right do I have to come comment on Indian history? I am a trained historian. I read Sanskrit. I read Persian. Many people cannot handle a woman talking and feel the need to scream over her. [crowd claps and cheers]

As a new scholar, just emerging from an intense five years of learning how to practice ethical, rigorous research, my jaw drops every time I hear her response. How did she not understand what he was asking? How could she evade the real question and concern that were clearly embedded in his words? How could a researcher whose career is built upon telling the history of a genocidal tyrant (well, not according to her) who terrorized a civilization that is not hers stand on the sacred land of that civilization and not authentically honors a question about her right to do so? How could she stand on Indian soil (or any soil, for that matter) and talk about Aurangzeb as “that guy” and his “contributions to Indian development” and not respond to a legitimate question about the ethics of her work?

How did she, a trained researcher, not grasp (or, perhaps, admit) that while his question was framed as her right, what he was really asking was about her sense of responsibility?

Some may say, well, that’s what he asked her. Okay, sure. Others may chalk it up to the “cultural bias of Americans to be obsessed with rights, and not think about responsibility.” In general, sure, I might agree with that. But, in contemporary research, there is a growing and pervasive recognition of the historical and contemporary harm done in the name of research across disciplines. There is a particular awareness that has arisen in the fields of medical research and anthropology, two limbs of colonial oppression.

 To be clear, this isn’t about flattering or appeasing research subjects. It’s about transparent communication and methodology, ethical interactions, fair representation, and acknowledging that we, as scholars, are benefiting from subject participation. We are indebted to them, not the other way around.

Ethical Research

What emerges from this growing recognition is that researchers have a responsibility to be ethical and to respect the subjects of study. That’s why Institutional Review Boards (IRB) exist at research institutions, universities, and sites of study, like schools and hospitals. You cannot conduct a legitimate study on human subjects without demonstrating to a panel of experts that your research design recognizes the uneven power between a researcher (who is associated with an institution) and her subjects, that your research does not exploit that uneven power, and that you have included mechanisms to check your power and the bias that emerges from it, including member checks, transparent research design, active consent, and the right to refuse to participate. It goes without saying that ethical research design cannot inflict cruelty or be manipulative. IRBs recognize that the power imbalances are even greater when you come from a historically dominant community and are doing research on a historically oppressed one and that even if you are doing emic research (i.e. you come from the same community), you still must recognize your power. Are IRBs perfect in enacting this? Absolutely not. I find myself in many conversations about frustrating IRB feedback. But those conversations revolve around how to be more ethical and demonstrate greater respect for our subjects, not around how to evade ethics with the authority granted to us by our institutions. No matter how flawed the system may be, the recognition is there, the intention is there, and the mechanism exists.

In other words, for better or worse, researchers have a code of ethics.

I showed the clip to some of my colleagues. These are folks who are not “Hindu rashtra”; they have no direct connection to Hinduism or even to India. They are educational scholars committed to ethical, rigorous research, like me. Their immediate response was more or less along the lines of, What in the actual fork? That’s not what they taught us at Teachers College.

Within a month of starting our doctoral programs at Columbia, we were instructed to get CITI training on ethical research design [2]. (Interestingly, some Indian institutional IRBs also require the same CITI training, which is based in the U.S.) In order to apply for IRB approval for a pilot, dissertation, or any studies, we had to have CITI certificates on file. In order to begin our doctoral research, we had to have an IRB stamp on every piece of recruitment material, include active consent forms, which inform participants of the purpose of the study, the ways in which they may be made vulnerable by participating, how they will or will not benefit from participation, and their rights. (The form for my study is seven pages long.) In addition to this, every research methods class I’ve taken begins with a critical historical investigation of how that research methodology has been used towards oppressive ends; oftentimes, the methodology emerged during colonial times. We also deconstruct the multitude of ways it can be enacted ethically in contemporary research, including guidelines for ethical online research, how to be aware of our own biases through reflexive practice, and how to fairly represent our subjects [3]. To be clear, this isn’t about flattering or appeasing research subjects. It’s about transparent communication and methodology, ethical interactions, fair representation, and acknowledging that we, as scholars, are benefiting from subject participation. We are indebted to them, not the other way around.

Truschke isn’t just a historian. She conducts off-the-books, unethical human subject research on Hindus. Imagine designing a study where you deny the genocide of a people, bait their descendants on social media with provocative, pejorative tweets, (i.e. comparing them to Nazis) and then capture their reactions

Unofficial Ethnography

Now Audrey Truschke is not officially an ethnographer; she is a historian who deals mostly in archival data. And she has conveyed quite clearly that she considers her field to be a pure science — that it’s not subjective like social sciences; that there is an unequivocal truth to be discovered and reported. And while I am not familiar with the ethical guidelines of her discipline, I’m fairly confident they exist. It’s also significant to note that while she also received her doctorate from Columbia, its values and emphases on researcher ethics appear to be uneven across disciplines, particularly in Indology. I’m also confident that a post-colonial nation like India ought to be able to enforce their own parameters for ethical research practices, including who funds it. After all, even CITI recognizes the risks of undue foreign influence on research [4]. Given the empirically-based recognition that research and scholarship have been used to harm indigenous cultures, justify oppression, and whitewash colonization and Truschke’s family ties to missionaries, Dr. Murali had every right to question Truschke on her right to use his land as her site of study. Moreover, it was clear to this researcher that he was moved by his sense of his responsibility to his land, his ancestors, and his descendants to ask her this question. He has been faulted for “being too emotional” in his presentation. I believe his affect is perfectly justified and reasonable. He was in hostile territory in his own country.

But here’s the thing. Truschke isn’t just a historian. She conducts off-the-books, unethical human subject research on Hindus. Imagine designing a study where you deny the genocide of a people, bait their descendants on social media with provocative, pejorative tweets, (i.e. comparing them to Nazis) and then capture their reactions [5]. You then erase your bait and present their reactions as “proof” that you are being attacked for your “truth-telling” and because you are a woman [6]. Imagine designing that study and presenting it to an IRB for an ethics review and expecting to get it approved. This is exactly the kind of “research” Audrey Truschke is doing, minus the IRB approval, possibly under the pretence of her right to public data. Again, it’s about her rights, not her sense of responsibility.

As a Hindu and as a new scholar, I’ve had just about enough of it.

Enough.

Of course, you can call me naive, or overly optimistic about the Academy, because I’m a newbie. I can’t disagree with that, and I agree that the Academy is filled with ethics violations that it finds ways to justify. But it is also filled with scholars who strive to be ethical and have woven ethical reflexivity into their practice of research. These are the people who taught me how to be a humble, self-aware scholar. So I’ll also push back and say, it is a community that keeps us true to our ethics and not just our internal moral compass. And it is perfectly acceptable and even correct for me to hold someone in my general profession (academia) to the highest ethical standards. In fact, it is my responsibility.

It’s Just Bad Scholarship

But here’s the thing is, Truschke is not alone. She is simply carrying on the legacy of her mentors, including Wendy Doniger, who writes about Hinduism and India so preposterously that when I read aloud her description of the “fear of monsoon” to a room full of Indian college students, they were flabbergasted. I guess she never conducted member checks. (Professor Juluri unpacks this same oddity in glorious and powerful detail in Rearming Hinduisma book that I cannot recommend enough [7].) Meanwhile, Hindu Indology scholars, including Professor Vishwa Adluri and Professor Joydeep Bagchee, whose brilliance, precision, rigour, and clarity cannot be overstated, are nearly blackballed from the discipline. Their dissent with the prevailing misrepresentations and misinterpretations is casually dismissed as Hindu fundamentalism, which they call out succinctly and clearly in “Cry Hindutva: How Rhetoric Trumps Intellect in South Asian Studies” [8].

(I also want to be clear that this is not just about the identity categories of researchers. There are shining examples of folks who are not of Indian descent who are incredibly ethical scholars of India and Hinduism, including Dr. Koenraad Elst and Dr. David Frawley. And there are examples of people of Indian descent who engage very unethically in the study of India and Hinduism.)

And, apparently, it is en vogue to conduct “research” on Hinduism and Hindus outside of the fields of Indology and South Asian studies, without including a single Hindu voice or any Hindu meaning-making. Ethical and academic standards of research don’t apply when it comes to Hindus. Take Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

“[Her] sociological evidence is mostly marshaled from seminar rooms where Wilkerson claims she can identify the caste of a person merely from looking at behavior, a miraculous skill no Indian claims to have, which, however, she does not seem to have tested beyond the seminar room.”

“Wilkerson similarly has not studied the caste system in India. At one point, she openly admits this saying “I spoke none of the Indian languages, knew nothing of the jatis, and was in no position to query anyone as to the section of village from which they came”.
(From “Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: A failed comparison and a deeply flawed book”) [9]

Because she has done no research on caste, she also fails to parse out the structures of caste (which is, arguably, a colonial agenda to organize and control) from varna and jati. Not only does this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and “researcher” employ incredibly offensive and dubious research methodologies, she effectively erases the impact of colonization of India in her analysis, giving merely a few words on class [10]. Bear in mind, the British stole $45 trillion from Indiaafter methodically de-industrializing her [11]. One would think that the social impact of such structural and fiscal devastation would be given some space for analysis in a 447-page book. And yet

It is in this fashion that researcher, writers, and scholars erase, gaslight, and lie about Hindus and Hinduism in order to promote their careers and their ideas. (There are innumerable, intolerable examples of this in media as well.)

And, yet, it is the Hindu response that is frequently under investigation and held as incriminating evidence of our inherent oppressiveness and fundamentalism.

To be clear, Audrey Truschke is a professor at Rutgers University, which is publicly funded with New Jersey tax dollars. The community is largely Hindu, the student population is largely Hindu. Isabel Wilkerson is an award-winning journalist who is friends with Oprah Winfrey. I am a Hindu American doctoral candidate in teacher education (a vulnerable field) in a sociopolitical environment that is particularly anti-Hindu, thanks to the efforts of folks like them. They are literally profiting off of studying my ancestral land and chastising my ancestors and community, and I am putting my entire career at risk by writing this, because of the ways in which vocal Hindus are branded as fundamentalist. They have the backing of institutions and the public. I am writing independently, with no institutional backing. I am saying this to make clear the power structure within which this commentary sits and the blatantly racist, orientalist, xenophobic tropes that are being evoked to trick everyone into thinking otherwise.

This power differential and racism are frequently manipulated to silence Hindu American scholars and Hindu history. Not only does it operate with startling impunity, it functions under a very twisted logic of equity.

For instance, Routledge recently published a handbook on yoga and meditation without any Hindu representation (people or epistemologies)[12] . I made a Facebook post about this, asking how this was ethical or responsible on the part of Routledge, and a friend shared my post [13]. It was met, almost immediately, with responses that I was trying to exploit diversity vernacular, vague allegations of Hindu nationalism, of casteism, and of Hindu oppressiveness, by at least one professor who knows me from a global Academic mothers Facebook group. To be clear, I never suggested that the handbook ought to be written solely by Hindus. I simply pointed out that not a single Hindu voice was included.

We are constantly being examined as non-consensual participants in unofficial, unethical human subjects studies by scholars in the Academy

My critic made a point of asking if she, a Hindu who had never read the Vedas, was more qualified than a Muslim scholar who had. A surprisingly absurd strawman argument from someone with a PhD from an Ivy League institution. First, one doesn’t simply read the Vedas as a piece of literature. Moreover, when there is empirical evidence that Hindus have been left out of the academic discourse on our own scriptures, there is sufficient reason to ask — is it responsible for a non-Hindu scholar of Hinduism to promote their own career at the expense of a Hindu scholar studying their own tradition? Is that ethical? To whom are their obligations? For a Hindu, our obligations are to our ancestors, our gurus, our community, our descendants, the earth, etc. That is the context within which we are studying what our ancestors wrote. So when I see scholars writing research on yoga and meditation, I feel justified in asking: What are their commitments? Are they being transparent about their biases? What are their goals? Why are they interested in this topic and how does that relate to the purpose of yoga? If the scholar’s responsibility is to the advancement of their career and to the academic study of yoga (which, no, is not neutral) or to their funders, then there is a clear line in terms of defining the ethics of scholarship.

My critic also made a reference to an “incident” that had occurred in the Facebook group, where we have, to my understanding, a mutual understanding of public privacy. Still, she felt it was important to reference this incident and a private exchange she had with me three years ago. If you were not privy to the group, her comment might make you think I was vaguely Hindu nationalist or casteist, or there was something off about me. (I went back and looked at the message to make sure I wasn’t being a jerk. My message clearly stated that I believed that the issues of caste in India were just as important to interrogate and work on as issues of race in the United States.) She then capped it off with, “I’ll PM you” to my friend. Apparently there were things she, a professor, needed to share about me, a doctoral student, out of the public gaze.

These kinds of things happen all the time to Hindu students and scholars who are speaking about Hinduism in non-Western-dominant ways, asking for the same rights as other minoritized communities. My friend, a Hindu American doctoral student, was openly bullied for his religion by a Professor at Cambridge University for expressing grief for the loss of both Hindu and Muslim lives during the Delhi riots last winter.

I was then called an RSS frontman (by a researcher who denies the genocide of the Kashmiri Pandits) and had photos of my parents’ car and license plate put up on the Internet by a professor who complains about threats to her from people on Twitter (after baiting them). She just laughed at it all and liked a comment that said I should go “drink cow urine.”

We are constantly being examined as non-consensual participants in unofficial, unethical human subjects studies by scholars in the Academy. And let’s be clear, practising Hindus are a global religious minority in addition to being a minoritized religious community in the United States. Just being asked to be included in the conversation about us, asserting our right to speak our truth, mentioning the loss of Hindu lives, is met with the most extreme accusations, ones that would not be acceptable were they hurled at another community.

As I go through the last stages of revising and defending my dissertation, emerging as new scholar, I often reflect on how I entered the space of teaching twenty years ago because of Dharma and how I have spent the last five years starting my journey as a Dharmic researcher and scholar. What is clear is that it is my responsibility to do my part in defining and holding the space for Dharmic expression in the Academy.

Lakshmana Rekha

  • Whether or not a Christian or Muslim (or Abrahamic atheist) scholar of Hinduism actively subscribes to the missionary aspect of their faith, they must a) acknowledge that their faith has attacked Hinduism in the past; b) recognize the current persecution of Hindus for their Hinduism; c) recognize the massive networks of missionary funding and resources seeking to convert Hindus; d) state that their goal is not to support missionary work; e) publicly acknowledge any Christian or Muslim religious organizational connections, and f) acknowledge that their work may be used by their fellow community members to cause violence upon Hinduism. If they don’t do this, I will assume that they support one or more of the above and their work will lose credibility.
  • If a scholar identifies as Hindu but hasn’t studied Dharmic scriptures in one of the many ways outlined by Hindu traditions, nobody is saying they aren’t Hindu. But they have also clarified that they are not qualified to speak about the contents of the scriptures or to ascertain if someone else is qualified to speak about the scriptures. This is a basic principle that we would follow in any academic discipline.
  • If a scholar (or activist) is not a Hindu and has not studied Hindu scriptures in one of the many ways outlined by Hindu traditions, they are not qualified to speak authoritatively on Hindu scriptures.
  • Hinduism is not a read-the-book religion. Being a practising Hindu carries more weight in understanding Hinduism than simply being well-versed in it. Any non-Hindu scholar of Hinduism who does not honour this demonstrates a weakness in their understanding of Hinduism.
  • Any non-Hindu scholar of Hinduism who does not actively and sincerely advocate for the inclusion of a diverse body of Hindu scholars of Hinduism in the Academy is complicit in using Hinduism to promote their own careers on the backs of Hindus.
  • There is ample evidence that that are gross mistranslations of Hindu scriptures and texts that are still being used by the Academy. These mistranslations were created for the purpose of conversion and colonization. Any scholar who seeks to be taken seriously will be transparent and obvious about which version of Hindu scriptures they are reading and trace the origin of the translation, placing it historically.
  • Hindus have the right and the responsibility to follow our own internal rules of adhikārā.
  • If you are speaking for Dalit voices in your critique of Hinduism and you are not Hindu, you are suspect, as this is a tactic used by missionaries. Moreover, if you don’t center and amplify a variety of Hindu Dalits voices consistently, then you are anti-Hindu, which is anti-Hindu Dalit. Your commentary on Hinduism is invalid.
  • If you have the audacity to state that I am a Hindu nationalist (or something close to it) and that this is what motivates me, even though I am an American citizen, you are making an incredibly dangerous, racist, anti-immigrant claim. I became a US citizen as an adult. You are putting my status in jeopardy with your claim, particularly under the current administration. It is on you to provide incontrovertible and substantiated evidence about why you need to bring in your ideas about another country in the context of discussing the ideas of an American citizen. The same rules apply to everyone — we would be aghast if someone asked a Muslim American scholar to explain every single Muslim nation’s actions in a way that satisfied us before we “gave them” the right to speak about Islam without suspicion.
  • You cannot argue that I am being “encouraged to” do anything by the Indian government or by “Hindu terrorist organizations” without substantiated proof. My dissent with what you believe to be true is not proof. I am an American citizen. I have rights.
  • You cannot argue that using Hinduism as an umbrella term when discussing yoga is anti-Buddhist and anti-Jain and then use that as a reason to exclude Hindu voices. That’s intellectually dishonest.
  • If you are not Hindu, you can’t lean on people you “know and trust” to argue with Hindus about Hinduism and Hindu history and put us in our place. Stay in your lane.
  • Hinduism is allowed to have an identity without being accused of being fundamentalist.
  • I am under no obligation to respond to ignorant comments that are thrust upon me antagonistically.
  • If you are in a position of power over me — a tenured professor at a university, for instance — and you use your power to mock me or cast suspicion upon me on social media or anywhere because I am a practising Hindu, you are in grievous violation of Academic ethics. Moreover, if you are using the power of your institution to silence the voices of those with less power under the pretence that those with less power are oppressive, simply because they don’t agree with you, then you are squashing dissent and camouflaging it by justifying bigotry and unethical behaviour.
  • If you make a statement that any Hindu who has a Guru is backwards, cannot be progressively-minded, and is worthy of suspicion, and you pass along this “insider” information within academic circles, then you are being actively anti-Hindu, which makes you a bigot [14]. The Guru-Shishya tradition is foundational to the study of Hinduism. This kind of commentary is mind-bogglingly hypocritical in academia.
  • If you decide to take it upon yourself to use vague references to caste to legitimize silencing me, you are engaging in discrimination and I will call you out on your unethical behavior. This includes colonial era theories like Aryan Invasion Theory, studies conducted by non-Hindu scholars on Hindu Americans who do not confront their internal bias, and dubious and easily controvertible “evidence” like Equality Lab’s Caste Report, which does not include a single Hindu voice.
  • If you intentionally bait Hindus in order to collect data on us without our consent, do not follow protocols for ethical online research vis-a-vis Hindus, or engage in any other form of non-consensual human subjects studies on Hindus, your lack of ethics will be noted.

Community of Scholars

My Sankalpa is that the larger community of scholars will grow increasingly aware of the hostile environment that some Hindu scholars face in the Academy, and will stand by us and help us hold the space for ethical, powerful, rigorous academic work that allows for a multitude of Hindu voices and perspectives. Reflexivity, diversity, and self-awareness are some of the Academy’s greatest strengths. During this particular moment, when institutions and scholarly communities are becoming increasingly clear in how they can be even more inclusive and more ethical in their treatment of people and ideas, I hope that Hindu scholars will soon be able to breathe a little easier and more Hindu voices will be honoured by the Academy.
Jai Guru Dev.

References:

[1] (I unpacked the moment here.)Sep 17, 2017, Twitter.com

[2] Mission and History – CITI Promgram – CITIProgram.org

[3] Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research – Dec 15, 1986, Aoir.org

[4] Undue Foreign Influence: Risks and Mitigations – CITIProgram.org

[5] Aurangazeb’s tyranny and bigotry cannot be whitewashed: A counter-view – May 06, 2017, FirstPost.com

[6] Audrey Truschke for the Revealer: Hate Male – July 14, 2020, Rutgers.edu

[7] Rearming Hinduism Amazon.com

[8] Cry Hindutva: How Rhetoric Trumps Intellect in South Asian Studies – Academia.edu

[9] Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: A failed comparison and a deeply flawed book – Sep 18, 2020, forPositivePeaceblog.wordpress.com

[10] Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: A failed comparison and a deeply flawed book – Sep 18, 2020, forPositivePeaceblog.wordpress.com

[11] British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India: Utsa Patnaik – Nov 21, 2018, LiveMint.com

[12] Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies – TheLuminescent.org

[13] Indu Viswanathan – Sep 12, Facebook.com

[14] The guru-shishya structure is inherently prone to abuse. It needs to be demolished – Sep 19, 2020, IndianExpress.com

Note:
1. Text in Blue points to additional data on the topic.
2. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.

Indu Viswanathan
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