2014年3月17日星期一

Studying Hinduism in China

During my post-college gap year, learning about India has been a solitary exercise. Fortunately, there are also rare glimpses of the Chinese academics that focus on India through websites as well as classes. I have had the rare opportunity to sit on a religious studies class taught by one of them at Peking University and the experience was much better than any MOOC I have watched. So far, I listened to two lectures that were humorous but controversial, lively but also problematic at times. In a sense, he approached the culture with deference, neither approving or disapproving by offering normative suggestions. 
During the first lecture, the professor stressed the ingrained notion and deep-set culture of caste and dismissed the idea that it was an institution that could be soon abolished. He mentioned that a young primary school student had to write a research report, and she chose India's caste system as her topic. After researching Baidu (China's worse version of Google), the student concluded that the oppressors invented the caste system to rule over the oppressed and that the unjust system would soon die out. The professor commended this 10-year old student for concluding with this coherent explanation. Though he did not bother to correct her, he suggested to his college students that the truth was far more complicated. He took much effort in class to demonstrate the system's resilience and cogency through history.
The professor argued that the Mahatma Gandhi family's diminished influence in politics is related to his Vaishya caste, while the Nehru dynasty continued to thrive because they were Brahmins. I was utterly shocked by that theory, which was, for better or worse, something I would never hear in an American classroom. I mentioned this theory regarding the perception of politicians to my Indian friend, Vikash, who confirmed it. Vikash suggested that many people might hold grudges against Gandhi but they would never mouth it in public. I liked the metaphor he used: There are the people who slaved and died for building the Taj Mahal, the few people who remember them, and the vast majority of people who only marvel at the beauty and love story surrounding the Taj. Similarly, there are the few Gandhi’s detractors, and there are Gandhi’s flag-bearers and passive supporters. (This recent Caravan article by Arundhati Roy, however, is a great exception that shows Gandhi's lack of commitment to anti-racism in South Africa.)


Segment 1 of 1800s scroll painting of a parade in colonial India, seen at the Beijing Palace (Gugong) Museum. Victoria & Albert Museum Collection on exhibit


Segment 2 of 1800s scroll painting of a parade in colonial India, seen at the Beijing Palace (Gugong) Museum. Victoria & Albert Museum Collection on exhibit.

Back to the caste system. The professor suggested that even today, some Dalits ("贱民" or "不可接触者" in Chinese, direct translation from "Untouchables") would apologize for polluting someone else's car after being hit by it. A Dalit official received his newspaper tossed across the room by his higher-caste subordinate. In contrast, the professor suggested, no one could have dared to do that to the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, even though he was also just a beggar from the start.
The caste system presented as an immutable and continuous system is problematic. "Dalits have always been Dalits (贱民永远是贱民),the professor proclaimed. He also mentioned that through his experience, Brahmins usually cannot eat with lower castes. He also cautioned that the Chinese custom of delivering shared food with one's chopsticks (夹菜) to a Brahmin or Ksatriya's bowl is unacceptable. Yet Indian sociologist André Béteille's research, aptly titled "India's Destiny is not Caste in Stone" has shown that inter-dining between castes has increased over the years. First, he explains the rules of purity and pollution in this case:
Only castes of equivalent rank could inter-dine with each other. In general people accepted cooked food and water from the hands of their superiors, but not their inferiors. The ritual rules governing food transactions were rigid and elaborate until a hundred years ago. 
Nobody can deny that there has been a steady erosion of those rules. Modern conditions of life and work have rendered many of them obsolete. The excesses of the rules of purity and pollution have now come to be treated with ridicule and mockery among educated people in metropolitan cities like Kolkata and Delhi.
I wondered what problems the Chinese professor's presentation of caste suggested. I once engaged in an intense debate regarding whether one should judge India's caste system upon arriving in the country the first two weeks. The American professor criticized inequality in the abstract vehemently and bemoaned the current situation in India with great passion. I tried to suggest that inequality in the abstract was not unique to India, and was rebuked. This Chinese professor, however, approached the caste system with more ease and acceptance. After the professor's first lecture, I was impressed and thought that Chinese people would have a much better understanding of caste because of common experiences of the elite ruling over the non-elites during pre-modernity. 
This week I listened to another lecture and my previous impressions were confirmed again: the professor continued to discuss how the conniving Brahmins and Ksatriyas successfully aligned the Vaishya and the Shudras with their interests during the turbulent Brahminical period (600 BCE - 600 CE) when Jains and Buddhists challenged the caste system. The professor admired how the Brahmins and Ksatriyas understood the universal human desire to step on other people's heads even while they are being stepped on. The Vaishya and Shudra caste happily accepted an inferior status just so they could have membership in the cultural ecosystem and be on top of Untouchables. This sweeping explanation left me deeply unsettled. He also suggested that Gandhi tried to combat the caste stigmas by introducing the Harijan (Children of God) term, but failed because he could not reinvent the caste myth of Purusha--"the Brahmin from his mouth, the Kshatriya his arms, the Vaishya his thighs, and the Shudra his feet."--"Which part of the giant did the Dalits come from?" The professor asked. At least his dead skin of his sole(脚后跟的死皮)?--again, the politically incorrect joke. Still, the professor has a great knack for comparing religions, and there are a lot of other themes in these lectures that I shall revisit in the future.

Some other related thoughts on Chinese scholars of India. Fudan University lecturer and Sanskrit academic Dr. Liu Zhen (刘震) advocates for an Indology institute in China. He promised to establish this institute before he returned to China to his Munich University adviser, Sanskrit and Tibetan scholar Dr. J. U. Hartmann. While Liu's ambitions are commendable, I am both amused and annoyed that the translation of “印度学”(English: Indology German: Indologie): in Chinese it can also mean "Indian studies." Liu continues the tradition of the focus on philology, calling it "a pure discipline is a form of religion, it is not a means to earning a living, it needs sacrifice."
I could not help but think, that sounds very self-elevating, but what about modern India and the sociocultural aspects of India? Usually when Indian culture is mentioned in Chinese academia, one usually thinks about the famous and canonical Pali and Sanskrit scholar Ji Xianlin who also studied in Germany. While the motives behind Area Studies approach has been questioned, the approach for studying only the classical and religious aspect of a country is also incomplete. I hope to see more students and professors of Indian history in China that not only look at the classical culture but also the colonial history.
Referring to one kind of Indian thought by studying only the classical texts can create a considerable amount of tensionAs A.K. Ramanujan has proposed in his philosophical inquiry Is There an Indian Way of Thinking
There are Great and Little Traditions, ancient and modern, rural and urban, classical and folk. Each language, caste, and region has its special world view. So, under the apparent diversity, there is really a unity of viewpoint, a single supersystem. Vedists see a vedic model in all Indian thought. 
But we are not all Vedists that have learned years of Sanskrit. I do not mean to diminish the importance of Sanskrit, having studied it for one year, but I would hope for interdisciplinary approaches when for future Indian studies in China.