Bias in Indology

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Claims of Bias in South Asian Studies have often been made. Partisan activity from every area in the field of South Asian Studies may concentrate on some aspect of real or perceived bias.

There have been for example allegations of a prejudice against Hinduism among some Indologists. Both Western indologists and Indian scholars have been accused of having political or other motives.

Indology, the study of Indian societies and cultures, languages and peoples by Western or Eastern scholars, has come to acquire negative connotations in some quarters. It has sometimes been interpreted to refer to the study of India by Americans and Europeans shaped by the attitudes of the era of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. This can imply old-fashioned and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples.

Bias was and is also found in other social sciences. Western perceptions of China by sinologists or other scholars were sometimes prejudiced.

Colonial Indology[edit]

Some Western Indologists have been accused of being eurocentric or of having missionary motives.

Max Müller was often accused by some Hindus of having a Christian, anti-Hindu or eurocentric bias. Though he took the view that Christian morality was superior to Vedic traditions, his Gifford lectures rejected the concept of direct divine revelation in favour of a trancendental model of spiritual insight, which, in his view, was perfected in the Vedanta. Max Müller may have sometimes shown a bias, but the extent of is disputed. Some other indologists were likewise accused of having a missionary and anti-hindu bias (e.g. Monier-Williams).

Historians have noted that "evangelical influence drove British policy down a path that tended to minimize and denigrate the accomplishments of Indian civilization and to position itself as the negation of the earlier British Indomania that was nourished by belief in Indian wisdom."[1]

In Charles Grant "Observations on the ...Asiatic subjects of Great Britain" (1796), Grant criticized the Orientalists for being too respectful to Indian culture and religion. The text was highly influential. His work tried to determine the Hindu's "true place in the moral scale", and he alleged that the Hindus are "a people exceedingly depraved".

Lord Macaulay, who introduced English education into India, claimed: "I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia." [2] He wrote that Arabic and Sanskrit works on medecine contain "medical doctrines which would disgrace an English Farrier - Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school - History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long - and Geography made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter".[3] He advocated to create a middle Anglicised class that was "Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect".[4] This class of anglicized Indians would then in turn anglicize the Indian people.

The East India Company issued in 1804 a report on the formation of the East India College to "form good servants for the Company". It gave recommendations for the education of the British administrators in India and stipulated that

"the system should aim also at making them good subjects, and enlightened Patriots. They are to leave their Native Country at an early Age, to pass many years of Life among People every way dissimilar to their own; their sphere of action is placed at a remote distance from the Parent State; they are to manage interests of the highest value to that state; and our vast acquisitions there with the continually increasing number of Europeans in those territories, tend to strenghten their Attachment to that Quarter. It is therefore of importance that the Young Men, before their departure, should be imbued with revererence and love for the Religion, the Constitution, and the Laws of their own Country; and hence the plan of their studies should comprehend some elementary instruction in those most essential branches of knowledge Those branches will also be best learnt before the young Men have launched out into the World, which without such instruction they would go unfortified against erroneous and dangerous Opinions."[5]

One of the most influential historians of India during the British Empire, James Mill was criticized for being prejudiced against Hindus. His work "History of British India" (1817) may be the "single most important source of British Indophobia and hostility to Orientalism".[6] The Indologist H.H. Wilson wrote that the tendency of Mill's work is "evil".[7] Mill claimed that both Indians and Chinese people are cowardly, unfeeling and mendacious. Both Mill and Grant attacked Orientalist scholarship that was too respectful of Indian culture: "It was unfortunate that a mind so pure, so warm in the pursuit of truth, and so devoted to oriental learning, as that of Sir William Jones, should have adopted the hypothesis of a high state of civilization in the principal countries of Asia."[8] Karl Marx's writings were also prejudiced against Indians. [2]

Prior to 1950, there were several Indologists who were fascist and/or supported the Nazi Regime (e.g. Walter Wüst).

However, the Indologists were also often under pressure from missionary and colonial interest groups, and were frequently criticized by them.

Examples of bias[edit]

  • Decoupling Sanskrit and its shastras from the Vedas
  • Politicizing kavya and decoupling it from the Vedas
  • Claims that the Ramayana is a tool for social oppression
  • Claims that Sanksrit has died due to Hindu kings, and ignoring the influence of Muslim invaders or British colonizers
  • Claims that German nazi ideologues and indologists were not misled in finding support in Sanskrit for its fascist and racist ideology, that Sanskrit tradition does support this ideology (Aryan Invasion theory and Indo Aryan migration theory)
  • Some Indologists appreciated Hinduism's sacredness and wanted to 'domesticate' it within the Christian/Biblical framework. E.g. William Jones.
  • Others explicitly reject the domain of the sacred as backward and obscurantist. E.g. Sheldon Pollock.

Bigotry and double standards[edit]

Then there were also Indologists who supported the colonial exploitation of India, but were defenders of freedom and democracy for their own peoples. For example, Wiliam Jones supported the American revolt against British imperial rule, but in India he supported the British rule over Indians. [9]

Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT)[edit]

According to some critics, the Aryan invasion theory reflects colonialism, eurocentrism and a racist worldview. The Aryan Invasion Theory debate has produced a lot of polemics on both sides of the debate. Elst noted in 2005 that „in the intervening years, the atmosphere in this debate has calmed down a little, but in the final years of the second Christian millennium, scolding and shouting and smearing were the done thing on internet forum discussions of the Aryan invasion question. Ironically, most Western AIT champions have managed to come away with the impression that all the foul language was only their Indian opponents' doing, but the record shows that they too have given their best; Witzel's misrepresentation of my position is but a case in point.“ [10]

Critics of the AIT have claimed that pro-AIT (or pro-AMT) scholars refuse the debate by dismissing arguments against the AIT as politically motivated or that they replace arguments with mud-slinging.[11][12] A book by Shrikant Talageri that was critical of the AIT was strongly dismissed in an acadamic publication by Michael Witzel and G. Erdosy. However, they condemned Talageri's book without even having read it. Talageri noted that „this strong condemnation of a book, unread and unseen by them, is both unacademic and unethical.“ [13]

Allgegations of racism in the AIT[edit]

There have been allegations that the Aryan Invasion Theory is motivated or otherwise connected with racism and colonialism. Some of these allegations are exagerrated. The AIT was also supported in Nazi textbooks.[14] Even in more recent times, some western scholars or writers on Indology or on the AIT have been associated with nationalist or fascist ideologies. The AIT is also supported or accepted by some Western nationalists.[15] An European Urheimat of the Indo-Europeans is also sometimes claimed by some writers associated with the "Nouvelle Droite". [16]

The AIT is accepted by nationalist David Duke in his book My Awakening,[17] and is supported by Arthur Kemp in his white-supremacist "March of the Titans".[18] Jean Haudry, a member of the Scientific Committee of the Front National, wrote in 1985 in his book "Les Indo-Européens" that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were tall, blue-eyed, fair-haired, long-skulled and straight-nosed. In the same publication, he also supported the Aryan Invasion Theory and claimed that it is probable that the Aryans left from Jamna on the Volga.

Even though the AIT has been used as a tool to support racist or colonial doctrines, scholars who accept the AIT should not be branded as racists. Elst commented that "in their own case, I will gladly assume that none of them is motivated by racist doctrines, though they do work within a framework which is still indebted, through inertia, to ideas developed in an age when racist or colonial or missionary motives did play a significant role."[19] According to British anthropologist Edmund Leach, the AIT fits in a racist framework.[20] Elst (1999) asserted that what the non-invasionist authors reject "is precisely the creation of the conceptual framework which has made the racialist misuse of the term "Aryan" possible."

Allegations of Indian nationalism in the AIT[edit]

Some western scholars, writers and journalists have often stereotyped Indian scholarship as „Hindutva“, especially if it is critical of the Aryan Invasion Theory. Koenraad Elst noted that this "mistakenly attributes a political identity and motive to a scholarly hypothesis about ancient Indian history." [21] Sometimes all opponents of the AIT are bracketed with some writers who make inordinate claims (like P Choudhury). [22]

Likewise, pro-AIT writers were accused of being motivated by a political, racist, eurocentric, "Dravidian chauvinist" or other bias. In India, the AIT has also been promoted by Christian or Marxist interest groups.[23] Elst (2003) wrote in this regard: "If they don’t feel troubled by their de facto alliance with crackpots like V.T. Rajshekar or with the Marxist school and its record of history distortion, they have no reason to mobilize (false!) rumours of Hindu nationalist connections against Prof. Kazanas."

It should however be noted that many scholars who have written for or against the Aryan Invasion Theory are not politically motivated. There were also Hindu nationalists who supported the AIT: Veer Savarkar, who was crucial in the development of Hindu nationalism, believed in the AIT,[24] and the AIT was also supported by Tilak. On the other hand, the AIT was criticized by some Indian Marxists.[25] Ambedkar, an icon of the Dalit movement, was dismissive of the AIT: "There is not a particle of evidence suggesting the invasion of India by the Aryans from outside India...The Aryan Race theory is so absurd that it ought to have been dead long ago."[26] Ambdekar also claimed that the invasionist interpretation of the Rig Veda is "a perversion of scientific investigation" by western scholars who are on a mission "to prove what they want to prove, and do not hesitate to pick such evidence from the Vedas as they think is good for them."[27]

Bias in South Asian Studies by subject/writer[edit]

Marxist historiography (Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib etc)[edit]

See also Marxist historiography
  • K. N. Panikkar (born 1936) is an Indian historian, associated with the "Marxist school" of historiography.[28][29][30] He has attributed the Malabar Rebellion also known as the "Moplah Rebellion", or Moplah Riots as a Peasant uprising. Though it was a British-Muslim and Hindu-Muslim conflict in Kerala that occurred in 1921. During the early months of 1921, multiple events including the Khilafat movement and the Karachi resolution fueled the fires of rebellion amongst the Mappila Muslim community (Moplah is a British spelling). Thousands of Hindu men were murdered, women raped, and forcibly converted as a part of the riots. According to one view, the reasons for the Moplah rebellion was religious revivalism among the Muslim Mappilas, and hostility towards the landlord Hindu Nair, Nambudiri Jenmi community and the British administration that supported the latter. The Moplah Riots of 1921 were the most notable, although they had been preceded by several other minor riots since the 19th century.

Angana P. Chatterji Chatterji was involved with Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai's Kashmiri American Council, being one of only 20 attendees in a fully paid private resort conference.[31] Fai was later convicted of channeling funds from Pakistan's ISI[32] and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Criticism of pseudo-science / psychoanalysis in Indology (Criticism of Kripal, Doniger, Courtright)[edit]

Paul Courtright
  • Vishnu on Freuds Desk
  • India and Her Traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal By S. N. Balagangadhara
  • Kali's Child Psychological and Hermeneutical Problems by Prof. Somnath Bhattacharyya
  • Kali's Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda
  • Love's Child: The Way of the Gods by Antonio T. de Nicolas
  • The Uses (and Misuses) of Psychoanalysis in South Asian Studies by Alan Roland
Sudhir Kakar. Gerald James Larson, writing in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion wrote that, "Sudhir Kakar...indicates that there would be little doubt that from a Psychoanalysis point of view Ramakrishna could be diagnosed as a secondary transsexual." Larson further wrote that for anyone acquainted with Bengali spirituality and cultural life many of the symbolic visions and fantasies of Ramakrishna, which appear "bizarre and even pathological" when construed only in isolation or individually, become much less so when one relates them to nineteenth-century Bengal.[33]

Other Criticism of bias in Indology

  • Criticism of Vinay Lal
  • Ashis Nandy

JLF controversy. During the Jaipur Literature Festival held in January 2013, Nandy participated in a panel where he was quoted to have made controversial statements on corruption among lower castes in India. It was reported that he said,"

Rajasthan Police lodged an FIR under the SC/ST Act against Ashis Nandy for his statement regarding corruption among the SC/ST and OBC's.[34] After Nandy's lawyer moved the Supreme Court to quash all the allegations against him, the Court issued a stay order on his arrest on February 1st, 2013.[35] [4]

The subaltern scholar Dr. Satyanarayana has challenged Nandy's unscholarly and prejudiced remarks and expressed shock at the vociferous support he received for this from the Indian media and academia, asking rhetorically, "Is Prof. Nandy a holy cow?".[36] [5]

Bias on the Internet[edit]

Some Internet Forums and Mailing lists devoted to Indology were criticized as being biased and anti-Hindu. Yvette Rosser wrote a study of the biases in the RISA-l (Religions in South Asia List), a discussion group sponsored by the American Academy of Religion. She claimed that "some of the most respected and well-paid professors of Indian studies seem to have a deep aversion to Hindus, particularly an aversion to Hindus practicing modern Hinduism. There are several specific instances (...) where the esteemed scholars of South Asian Studies were, according to my sensibilities, unduly unprofessional and with no thought of repercussions or reprisals, unabashedly and readily revealed their inherent biases." [37]


  • One of his [Pollock's] goals is to critique and expunge what he sees as deeply entrenched static social hierarchies, barbarisms and poisons. I do not see anything inherently wrong with this intention by itself; most Hindus welcome improvements and the evolution of their culture. The issue worth debating is that Pollock sees these ills as deeply rooted in the Vedas themselves and as requiring the abandonment of core metaphysical and sacred perspectives.
    • The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra
  • I am not alone in making this point. At least one European Indologist accuses Pollock or relocating Orientalism 'to the "New Raj" across the deep blue sea'.[38]
    • The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra
  • He [Grünendahl] says Pollock's narrative 'is not an evidence-based study of Orientalism or Indology in Germany, but a sophisticated charge of anti-Semitism based largely on trumped-up "evidence".... Pollock's post-Orientalist messianism would have us believe that only late twentieth-century (and now twenty-first century) America is intellectually equipped to reject and finally overcome [‘Eurocentrism’...] The path from the 'Deep Orientalism' of old to a new 'Indology beyond the Raj and Auschwitz' leads to the 'New Raj' across the deep blue sea.
    • The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra
  • Thus, Grünendahl has noted Pollock's tendency to develop broad narratives without any supporting evidence. Moreover, he draws attention to Pollock's messianism in promoting American scholarship.... , casting doubt on Pollock's attempt to analyse Sanskrit objectively. He raises the pertinent question as to whether Pollock is providing the intellectual foundations for America's 'New Raj', to replace the dead British Raj - i.e., whether American imperialism is replacing the dead British imperialism.
    • The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra
  • It is important for Pollock that Muslims not be blamed for the decline of Sanskrit. He writes that any theory 'can be dismissed at once' if it 'traces the decline of Sanskrit culture to the coming of Muslim power'. ... In discussing Kashmir as an example of a locale where Sanskrit had died, he attacks the Hindu kings who presided over that death. His focus is on the two centuries before the Turks established their power in the Kashmir Valley. Trying to prove the timing of Sanskrit's decline prior to the Turkish invasions enables him to absolve these invasions of any blame. .... I get the impression that Pollock does not want to dwell on whether Muslim invasions had debilitated the Hindu political and intellectual institutions in the first place. He does note examine the devastation suffered by Hindu rulers that made it difficult to have large-scale wealthy and politically powerful institutions to match the power of the Muslims. Throughout Pollock's analysis, hardly any Muslim ruler gets blamed for the destruction of Indian culture. He simply avoids discussing the issue of Muslim invasions and their destructive influence on Hindu institutions! .... In his discussion of Kashmir, one of the foremost sites for his theory of the death of Sanskrit, he also neglects to mention the two incursions Kashmir faced at the time, one led by the Mongol Dulca from the west and the other by Rinchana from the north. The impact of various invasions in Kashmir was so enormous that it cannot be ignored in any historical analysis. ... The contradiction between his two accounts, published separately, is serious: Muslim invasions created a traumatic enough shockwave to cause Hindu kings to mobilize the 'cult of Rama' and therefore the Hindus funded the production of extensive Ramayana texts for this agenda. And yet, the death of Sanskrit taking place at the same time had little relation to the arrival of Muslims. When Hindus are to be blamed for their alleged hatred towards Muslims, the Muslims are shown to haven an important presence; but when Muslims are to be protected from being assigned any responsibility for destruction, they are mysteriously made to disappear from the scene.
    • The Battle for Sanskrit by Rajiv Malhotra
  • I also intend to restore objectivity. This is an urgent necessity in view of two challenges. (...) This means in practice that once you have identified an author as representative of the wrong interest group, his arguments are ipso facto wrong or vitiated. In a large part of the academic publications, this position is implicit in their way of foregoing any serious evaluation of arguments formulated by Hindu revivalists, as if the identification of the propounder of the argument as a “Hindu fundamentalist” were sufficient to put it beyond the pale of rational discourse. Thus, the Hindu litany of grievances against the inequalities imposed on Hinduism by the Indian state (which makes up a very large part of this literature) is commonly only mentioned as an object of ridicule, never of proper investigation. The second problem is that many India-watchers who have ordinary notions of objectivity (...) have none the less published books and papers on the present topic which suffer serious lapses from the normal scholarly standards. The exacting standards of objectivity are obviously a permanent challenge to scholars in any field, but this field, or at least its present-day state of the art, presents some peculiar problems. In some cases, the bias may be in the mind of the India-watcher, but the overriding problem is that even scholars and journalist who do try to be objective are handicapped in this endeavour by their reliance on Indian sources which have considerable standing but are none the less far from objective. (Elst 2001, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, p.8)
  • ...acting on Hacker's wishes, the editor of his collected works excluded the author's polemical Christian writings from the compilation. ... Many such polemical writings also appeared in fringe religious pamphlets and propaganda literature which are unknown to most scholars.... Hacker's suppression of this material compromised his integrity as an objective scholar, as it misled readers into thinking his writings on Hinduism were objective evaluations when in fact they were, in Andrew Nicholson's words, the work of a 'Christian polemicist'. In his posthumously published wrigings, Hacker is as explicit in his support for Christianity as he is in his attack on contemporary Hinduism.
    • Indras Net by Rajiv Malhotra, p. 65

See also[edit]


  1. Trautmann 1997:113
  3. Macaulay 1835:242-243
  4. Macaulay 1835:249
  5. East India Company 1804:15
  6. Trautmann 1997:117
  7. H.H. Wilson 1858 in Mill 1858, Preface of the editor
  8. Mill 1858, 2:109
  9. Malhotra:Battle for Sanskrit; Franklin 2011
  10. (Elst 2005)
  11. e.g. Talageri 2000. Talageri claims: "It is not we who have avoided the debate. It is these Western scholars who have chosen to conduct a spit-and-run campaign from a safe distance, while restricting their criticism of our theory ... to name-calling and label-sticking rather than to demolition of our argmuments.(...) Books and theories cannot be condemned, unread and unseen, solely on the basis of one's perceptions about the motivations behind them." (Talageri 2000)"
  12. Elst remarks: "Let me put on record here that in my 9 years of close invovement in this debate, I have seen time and again that it is the invasionist school which, when it did not refuse the debate, has spoiled the debate by replacing argument with mud-slinging. There are exceptions, of course,..." Elst: The Official Pro-Invasionist Argument at Last
  13. Witzel and Erdosy constantly cite the work incorrectly, using the wrong book data that was earlier used in a review of the Times of India. (see Elst 1999, Talageri 2000)
  14. e.g. Günther, Hans. 1932. Die nordische Rasse bei den Indogermanen Asiens; see e.g. Elst, Koenraad, 1999, Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate
  15. (e.g. Meerbosch 1992 Héritage Européen; Van den Haute 1993 "Le Mahabharata ou la mémoire la plus longue"; David Duke: My Awakening; Jean Varenne 1967; see e.g. Elst, Koenraad, 1999, Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate).
  16. Schuon 1979; Benoist 1997, 2000; Benoit 2001:13; Venner 2002:63. (see Elst 2003)
  17. Duke, David. (1999) "My Awakening"
  18. Kemp, Arthur. (2003) March of the Titans, History of the White Race
  19. Elst: The official pro-invasionist argument at last
  20. Leach 1990
  21. Elst: The official pro-invasionist argument at last. He added: "I don't call the AIT party "the European racist school" or the "Dravidian chauvinist school" eventhough those terms do explain the motives behind at least a part of the pro-AIT polemic, past or present."
  22. Talageri 2000; Kazanas, Nicholas: AIT and Scholarship [1]
  23. e.g. the Marxist Frontline magazine has published articles by Michael Witzel on the AIT.
  24. (Veer Savarkar: Hindutva)
  25. (Bhagwan Singh 1995: The Vedic Harappans)
  26. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 7 edited by Vasant Moon, Education Department, Govt. of Maharashtra Publications, Mumbai, 1990.
  27. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 7 edited by Vasant Moon, Education Department, Govt. of Maharashtra Publications, Mumbai, 1990.
  28. "Link technology with social sciences, says K.N. Panikkar". The Hindu. 21 February 2010. Retrieved 7 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "Rewrite history from Indian point of view: K.N. Panikkar". The Hindu. 6 May 2009. Retrieved 7 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. "Newspapers evading sensitive issues, says K.N. Panikkar". The Hindu. 29 November 2005. Retrieved 7 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. Barker, Kim. "The Man Behind Pakistani Spy Agency's Plot to Influence Washington". The Atlantic. Retrieved 1 May 2016.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. In 2011 "Ghulam Nabi Fai admitting to channeling ISI funds ISI".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Larson, Gerald James (Autumn, 1997). "Review: Polymorphic Sexuality, Homoeroticism, and the Study of Religion". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Oxford University Press. 65 (3): pp. 655–665. Check date values in: |date= (help)CS1 maint: extra text (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Rajasthan Police file FIR, summon Ashis Nandy
  35. ANI (1 February 2013). "JLF controversy: Supreme Court steps in to prevent Ashis Nandy's arrest". Daily News & Analysis. Retrieved 1 February 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  36. "Is Prof. Ashis Nandy a holy cow?". roundtableindia. Retrieved 2 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  37. (Rosser 2002)
  38. Reference is to Gruenendahl 2012
  • East India Company, 1804, Report of the committee appinted to enquire into the plan for forming an establishment at home for the education of young men intended for the Company's Civil Service in India, 26 October 1804. Published in Farrington 1976:14-21.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]