The Attempted Epistemicide of Hinduism

Indu Viswanathan
May 28, 2019 · 5 min read

What we now call Hinduism and popularly understand to be a religion is actually the name given by invaders of India (beginning with the Greeks) to the knowledge traditions and theories of knowledge that were developed in the lands below the Indus River. Just as it would make NO sense to lump all the theories of knowledge from, say, the United States into one apparently monolithic category and then categorize, understand, and critique that as a religion, it makes no sense to lump indigenous Indian knowledge traditions as Hinduism with a monolithic imagining of religion as a belief system rather than a theory of knowledge. But this is where we are today. This colonized, colonizer imagining of Hinduism as a religion lives and breathes in Indian people’s lives alongside the indigenous theories of knowledge that survive to this day because indigenous knowledge stewards who have fought to preserve, adapt, and share these theories of knowledge through a thousand years of attempted erasure and colonization.

Epistemology is the academic word for a theory of knowledge.

Epistemicide is the systematic destruction of a theory of knowledge. It is inherently violent.

When we think about and imagine colonization, what often comes to mind is the most obvious — genocide, rape, theft, pillaging. (Mind bogglingly, even this gets erased.) But colonial violence against indigenous knowledge traditions also sits at a much deeper level, a much more insidious level, like the Indian schools in the United States. This is epistemicide.

Modern schools in India are cast in the shadow of Macaulay’s epistemologically violent agenda. “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.” Macaulay was not comparing religion to literature. He was arguing that thousands of years of Indian knowledge production couldn’t compare to even mediocre English high school texts. In one fell swoop, he determined that the entire body of indigenous Indian knowledge production fell short of “a single shelf of a good European library”, dictating the entire premise of education upon which the modern Indian educational system is built. To this day.

There is so much to say about this.

When I look at the white dominated “yoga teacher” pages, I see the justification of epistemicide in small and large ways. I also see social justice vernacular and concepts deployed to not only silence those of us who stand up against the epistemicide of our knowledge traditions, but to accuse US of being violent, fanatic, racist, un-inclusive, and oppressive.

I will say this until I no longer have breath in my body: you cannot map anti-racist frameworks onto the struggles of stewards of indigenous knowledge traditions. Epistemicide is at the center of this disconnect. You may be having important conversations about being racially inclusive in your enactment of yoga asana within the hyper-capitalist yoga industrial complex and still be complicit in epistemicide.

Indians are doing this to ourselves. We are complicit in the erasure of our epistemologies, in the name of social justice. You can choose to do this, you might even think it is justified, but you must also acknowledge that this is what you are doing.

In a world where Western academia has been empowered and mandated to justify epistemicide, I caution everyone to be keenly aware of the ways in which settler-colonists of yoga engage academic concepts and experts to justify the epistemicide of indigenous Indian knowledge traditions.

This is happening in front of us, around us, behind us, and through us. By us, I mean stewards of yogic knowledge, of Dharma traditions, Indians, Indian Americans, South Asians, scholars, yoga practitioners, yoga-curious readers, yoga-skeptics, people who have nothing to do with yoga…people.

It happens every time an Indian or Indian American (regardless of what religion they identify with) feels they must disavow themselves from Hinduism in order to be a good social justice activist.

This attempted epistemicide happens every time Hinduism is reduced to religious fanatics and religion-based nationalists.

It happens when Hinduism is constructed, interrupted, debated, reduced, imagined, critiqued, dismissed, and solved as a religion.

Epistemicide is happening when an Indian scholar who identifies as a transnational feminist feels not only compelled but justified in accusing me (on social media) of being an inauthentic progressive activist because she has discovered that I have a Guru, who is literally my teacher of indigenous Indian knowledge. She has conflated my study of these epistemologies with me being a mindless lemur following a saffron-robed trickster, which is how she reads “Guru”. This appears to be a not uncommon assumption among progressive Indians.

Evidence of this epistemicide surfaces when I, a Hindu American scholar, share ideas that disrupt dominant discourses around the concept of “privilege” and how it may not be advancing the cause of equity or greater social parity and am immediately met with commentary that doesn’t take up the idea, but face an ad hominem attack by a white, male, New York Times reading progressive stranger. “It’s no surprise that this woman is a Hindu, because Hindus, like Japanese (not Japanese-Americans) have a background of dominance that is outside the standard set of American relationships. This framing may not be useful for -her- in the US when it may be useful for African Americans and White Americans, who have existed in a particular symbiosis for centuries. Perhaps what she should consider her version of this: how is her caste privilege?” There is no evidence that he understands the ways in which being “a Hindu” informs the way I make meaning in the world outside of “caste privilege”, and instead conflates my “religion” with dominance in an oppressor/oppressed binary that I seek to disrupt from my indigenous Indian epistemology.

Epistemicide is happening in India where claims to authentic knowledge production from indigenous Indian epistemologies (i.e. non-Western epistemologies) are dismissed and mocked as politically-motivated, fanatic nonsense.

Attempted epistemicide happens when indigenous Indian knowledge traditions are reduced and essentialized to mockable New Age tropes and decontextualized soundbites and retorts about caste, cow lynching, Islamophobia, phallus worship.

Epistemicide continues actively, aggressively, and violently when poor Indians continue to be converted by US-funded missionary work through fiscal incentives within a larger educational system that still lives under Macaulay’s shadow, and Hindus are accused of being religiously oppressive in a secular nation when they name this.

Epistemicide is enacted by the weapon of secularism in India.

It has taken me four decades of this lifetime to feel like I have the right to call my lineage indigenous, that I can reclaim my traditions as epistemological and not just religious, and to be able to identify and name the ways in which colonization and self-colonization continue through epistemicide, even as the nation of India appears to be post-colonial. I have so much to learn, and there are so many who know and have learned and unpacked this with immense depth, nuance, and rigor. I am just getting started.

Jai Guru Dev.

Indu Viswanathan

Written by

New York-based mother, scholar-activist, community member, friend, meditator, musician, and writer.

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