Does South Asian Studies Undermine India?


Repositioning India’s brand

As a priority, India’s image in American academia needs a corporate type analysis of the market/competition and current status. This would lead to the diagnosis and identification of key problems needing correction. Only then could a viable strategy emerge. This brand repositioning is necessary for more Indian-Americans to succeed on their own terms in management and political arenas. It is also necessary for an independent profile of India.

The strategy for influencing India Studies could begin with looking at India’s technology developments and opportunities, and the resulting geopolitical implications. This could build on the recent positive Indian image in corporate America and American business schools. Donors may want to think about initially working with business schools instead of South Asian Studies Departments, especially since Indian-American donors have better experience in evaluating business scholars than humanities scholars. Many of the contentious issues listed at the end of this article would not apply because of greater convergence between India’s interests and the mindset of business schools.

At the same time, culture is an important form of capital and must be positively positioned as a part of any brand management. Cultural branding should not be allowed to become a liability under the control of anti-India forces. Yoga and Ayurveda are examples of positive cultural areas that are now in the mainstream and deserve to be brought back under the India brand. Two illustrations will show the economic cost of not managing cultural capital:

Yoga is a multi-billion dollar industry in the USA, with 18 million American practitioners, $27 billion/year revenues (from classes, videos, books, conferences, retreats), over 10,000 studios/teachers, and 700,000 subscribers to Yoga Journal. However, cultural shame has kept Indians out of this field, and over 98% of yoga teachers and students in USA are non-Indians.

Clearly, the economic potential here could be as big as India’s software exports, especially if yoga were included in India’s proposed initiative to export health care services. America’s yoga centres are potential retail outlets for Indian culture and brand marketing.

Ayurveda is a $2 billion/year industry and a part of the high growth international market for plant medicines. The popular consumer brand, Aveda, was started by an American devotee of Indian gurus to bring Ayurveda to the West. (Aveda is short for Ayurveda.) He later sold it to Estee Lauder: Now, Estee Lauder sources herbs from countries other than India, and there has been no royalty to Kerala’s farmers who are being displaced from their traditional industry.

Nor is there any recognition of this loss in the Indian intellectual’s mind. Contrast this with the way the Chinese government has turned Chinese medicine into a multi-billion dollar vehicle for Brand China, or with the way the French wine and cosmetic industries have endowed their products with a mystique that protects French jobs.

To explain why educated Indians are amongst the best knowledge workers in the world, the common reason given is that the British taught us English, science and governance. But under this theory, all former colonies, such as Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Zaire, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Myanmar should be suppliers of knowledge workers on par with India.

Few Indians have the courage to articulate that the reason is partly because of India’s long cultural traditions that emphasize learning and inquiry, including the openness fostered by its pluralistic worldviews.

In fact, Indians were exporters of knowledge systems and knowledge workers throughout the Middle East and Pan-Asia for centuries prior to colonialism. Arab/Persian records indicate that many hospitals in the Middle East were run by Indian doctors and that Indian scholars ran their universities. Indians were chief accountants in many Persian courts. Indian mathematics went via Persian/Arab translations to influence European mathematics.

Furthermore, Buddhists took Indian knowledge systems to East and Southeast Asia, including medicine, linguistics, metallurgy, philosophy, astronomy, arts, martial arts, etc. Indian universities (such as Nalanda) attracted students from all parts of Asia, and were patronized by foreign rulers. All this is well appreciated by scholars in East and Southeast Asian countries but is hardly known to Indians.

Indian corporate executives are playing a key role in charting India’s future through knowledge based industries. Therefore, it should be important for them to sponsor an honest account of India’s long history of exporting both its knowledge workers and complete knowledge systems. This historical account is important in reinventing India’s non-innovative education system and repositioning its brand. Hence, Indian-Americans must question the colonial discourse which promotes the view that ‘anything positive about India was imported from elsewhere.’ The impact of such skewed discourse on Indian children is pertinent and must be examined.

I have found that American audiences are very open and even eager to learn about India’s contributions to American culture. But most professors of India Studies in American universities consider such themes irrelevant or, worse still, chauvinistic. In doing so, they apply a different standard to India as compared to other non-Western civilizations. This has a lot to do with the cultural shame that many Indians in academe feel burdened with – in contrast with successful Indian executives who project positive identities.

Consider the following examples that are usually not emphasized in the academic research/teaching in India Studies, when equivalent items concerning China, Islam, Japan, etc are emphasized:

America’s ‘Discovery’ was the result of venture capital from the Queen of Spain to explore new trade routes to India, because Indian goods were highly sought after. Most persons find it hard to believe that India could have had such prized export items, and some find such suggestions troubling given their preconceived images of India’s culturally linked poverty. Any genuine exploration of India’s economic history is nipped in the bud.

The New Age Movement is neo-Hindu, with 18 million Americans doing yoga, meditation, and adopting vegetarianism,  animal rights and other Indian values.

Eco-Feminism was brought to America by Vandana Shiva, who explained to Americans the philosophies of the sacredness of the environment. American Pop Culture owes a great deal to Indian music (via the Beatles and others), film, art, fashions and cuisine.

Icons of American Literature, such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Eliot, the Beats, among others, were deeply involved in the study and practice of Indian philosophy and spiritual traditions. While they are widely read and admired, the Indian wellsprings of their inspiration is often downplayed, to the detriment of all students. Modern Psychology, since the work of Jung and others, has assimilated many theories from India, and this has impacted mind-body healing and neurosciences.

American Religion has adopted many Indian theological ideas transmitted via Teilhard de Chardin‘s study of Ramanuja. Transcendental Meditation was learnt in the 1970s by monks in Massachusetts and repackaged into the popular ‘Christian Centering Prayer.’ The study of the Hindu Goddess became a source of empowerment for many American Christian women.

American Civil Rights drew inspiration from Gandhi: Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and others wrote about satyagraha as their guiding principle with great reverence in the 1960s, but this has faded from the memory of African-American history as taught today.

How many Indians know that Indian social theories influenced J S Mill, who is regarded as the founder of modern Western liberalism, and that many Enlightenment ideas also originated in India and China?

The Natural Law Party is considered a pioneer in American political liberalism, but it is generally unknown that it was started by, and is run by, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Western followers.

Such positive themes are rarely reflected in the humanities curricula concerning India. The disciplines are populated by scholars who typically entered the US after the Soviet collapse, when funding by Soviet-sponsored sources ended. They still continue to espouse sociological models that have been discarded for decades, thereby hindered India’s progress in the global economy. They continue to promote divisive scholarship about India. One wonders why the West legitimizes such persons and positions them as representatives of India.

Now they have reproduced their mindsets in a whole new generation of confused Indian-Americans with PhDs in the humanities.

 

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