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Tove Nicolaisen’s Hindus May 26, 2020

Posted by Andy in Uncategorized.
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Tove Nicolaisen’s collaboration with Halldis Breidlid, In the beginning was the Story, has given me useful Tupperware for my academic kitchen since I met it as a teacher for hire about ten years ago. So when I learned that I was to teach Hinduism next semester, the first thing I did was order her new book Hindus.

This is what tupperware looks like these days. Also, sourdough.

It is a marvellous dive into the world of Hinduism, touching all the aspects of lived religion you could ask for: art, ritual, history, text, music, as well as of course the compulsory stories. I now feel well prepared to sit down and plan Autumn’s lessons.

Most people writing on Hinduism are actually experts in a tiny corner of that particular cosmos. It would be churlish to claim you could summarise millenia in a four-afternoon book. At some point we all have to throw up our hands and admit that if the religious and literary genius that wrote the Mahabarata couldn’t get it down to less that ten thousand pages, we are unlikely to catch the essence of that epic in a short chapter without seriously compromising its message. All introductory books are more thorough in some regions and less so than others.

The unique character of this book is that Nicolaisen’s specialism is in Hindu children (which is the title of her 2013 doctorate) so although she may not know the ins and outs of the Upanishad textual makeup, she knows a great deal about how Norwegian Hindu children see their religion, and the quotations she includes give the prose valuable colour.

The second context to my reading of this book is Simone Weil. I decided to read as much of her work before summer as I could, and am currently on her notebooks. I will be telling more about this experience later, but for now suffice to say that her regular references to the Upanishads (long quotations and sanscrit terms) made me hungry to know more about Hindu philosophy.

That was the only disappointment I had reading this book. The philosophical and theological statements were often delivered by children, which was sweet but hardly representative of the best of the tradition. There was almost no sign of the profound and lifechanging thoughts found by giants of philosophy such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and of course Simone Weil.

This disappointment was both theoretical and editorial. The choice not to go too deeply into Hindu thought was obviously editorial, and we can respect these choices. The world would be a boring place if all the books we read were shaped by the choices we would have made. But the theoretical problem was more difficult to swallow: Nicolaisen thinks we can deal with postcolonialism with more knowledge.

She devotes a wonderful chapter at the end to school and orientalism, and whilst it contains a pointed and nuanced discussion of the way Hinduism has been negatively identified in religious studies, in terms of what it lacks rather than what it is (in a way that echoes Audun Toft’s discussion of Islam), but doesn’t identify science itself as the problem. It is the positive knowledge og oriental religions that was the problem. These thinkers really did know their stuff, but they used that knowledge to serve colonial government, in much the same way as knowledge about religious organisations was crucial for the administration of state lockdown during our current crisis.

As I say, all introductory books have to make some sacrifices, but I suspect the contrast in this case was particularly clear because the philosophy behind the book was itself so nuanced concerning issues such as constructing reality, identity and discourse. For example on page 285, she writes

It is far to assume that the summarised thinking – or discourse – is to be understood as a reflection of religious reality. At the same time, it contributes to defining pupils’ understanding of religious reality because that is how it is often spoken of in school. (my translation)

For me, Postcolonialism is at its strongest when a particular European set of philosophical terms and techniques (such as discourse analysis and the social construction of reality) are used to understand a thought system that itself contains similar approaches to the data in hand. If nothing else, ancient Hindu texts at the very least discussed issues of hermeneutics and the philosophy of language, and their modern counterparts do the same (I started to re-listen to the History of Philosophy in India podcast just to check this, and recommend the book/podcast combo). The postcolonial approach does not lack knowledge, it distributes the perfectly accurate knowledge so that the reader learns to think with the European approaches, but about the exotic Hindu objects of thought.

And that is why I continue to be fascinated by the distribution of method in Religious Studies.

Tove Nicolaisen (2018) Hinduer, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget (in Norwegian)

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