Note to recruiters

Note to recruiters: We are quite aware that recruiters, interviewers, VCs and other professionals generally perform a Google Search before they interview someone, take a pitch from someone, et cetera. Please keep in mind that not everything put on the Internet must align directly to one's future career and/or one's future product portfolio. Sometimes, people do put things on the Internet just because. Just because. It may be out of their personal interests, which may have nothing to do with their professional interests. Or it may be for some other reason. Recruiters seem to have this wrong-headed notion that if somebody is not signalling their interests in a certain area online, then that means that they are not interested in that area at all. It is worth pointing out that economics pretty much underlies the areas of marketing, strategy, operations and finance. And this blog is about economics. With metta, let us. by all means, be reflective about this whole business of business. Also, see our post on "The Multi-faceted Identity Problem".

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Hindu Studies Post 4 - Hello, I am George Ringo and I am your new Pope

No, seriously. How come Hinduism doesn't have anyone with the 'Authority' that somebody at the head of an organization such as the Catholic Church has? One can blame colonialism, racism, and a bunch of other -isms, but these explanations seem not to address the fact that colonialism is an -ism of the past, the fact that racism doesn't seem to have blunted the aspirations of the non-white contenders for Popedom, et cetera, et cetera.

As part of the main thesis of this series of posts, I would like to argue that there are actually three main reasons that Hinduism has until now lacked an 'Authority':
  1. the constitution of India : India is, of course, the birthplace of Hinduism. The constitution of India has significant lacunae in its treatment of free speech and this makes it impossible for people to freely speak their minds;
  2. the network structure of Hinduism makes it impossible for a large 'Population' of Hindus to agree on anything.  
  3. A third reason is that, and this is important too, edcuated Indians are generally willing to give anyone who has an opinion a chance to speak, and are often more concerned about fairness than about correctness.
Now, correctness in academic inquiry comes from both knowledge and methodology and the problem is that very few of the intellectuals have good methodology. As recently as 2004, we have had someone wih the reputation of Pankaj Mishra strenuously arguing that 'Hinduism is largely a fiction'. Even a first pass on his article shows that the argument lacks any methodology whatsoever. Here is Pankaj Mishra in Axess magazine, his article now having been picked up by somebody at Columbia. 
Hinduism is largely a fiction, formulated in the 18th and 19th centuries out of a multiplicity of sub-continental religions, and enthusiastically endorsed by Indian modernisers. Unlike Muslims, Hindus have tended to borrow more than reject, and it has now been reconfigured as a global rival to the big three monotheisms.

The article is very, very revealing, but not in the way that Pankaj Mishra might think. The above sentences is the stuff from the opening block. Later on, Pankaj Mishra says that the concept of a "religion" emerged in "the late 18th century and early 19th century". This is false and has, thus, far gone unchallenged not only by Axess magazine but also by other commentators.
THE REMARKABLE quality of this transformation is partly shown by the fact that there was no such thing as Hinduism before the British invented the holdall category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a "world religion" as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam. The concepts of a "world religion" and "religion" as we know them now, emerged during the late 18th and early 19th century, as objects of academic study, at a time of widespread secularisation in western Europe. The idea, as inspired by the Enlightenment, was to study religion as a set of beliefs, and to open it up to rational enquiry. 
But academic study of any kind imposes its own boundaries upon the subject. It actually creates the subject while bringing it within the realm of the intellect.
The idea of there being a religion has been around for far longer than "the late 18th century and early 19th century" and the only reason this claim seems to have made it into this article is because it seems to conveniently bookend the origins of Hinduism.  Again, this idea is false and has, thus, far gone unchallenged not only by Axess magazine but also by other commentators. Salman Rushdie has had a verbal spat with Mishra but for all his supposed reputation as a 'historical novelist' doesn't seem to have taken on Pankaj Mishra's claims. Most likely because he lacks methodological training himself. Amardeep Singh who was a blogger on Sepia Mutiny and now, an Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University, seems to have gone through the article but not raised the sort of methodological questions that I am raising here. Amitava Kumar who was on Sepia Mutiny also said nothing. This is probably because Professors of English don't have the methodological chops for investigating a question such as this.

What happened in the late 18th century and the early 19th century is not that the idea of a 'religion' was born. Instead, what happened is that during the British rule of India, they began to do some actual information gathering. This is something that had not been done as part of a structured process in India before. The people doing the information gathering began to notice commonalities between communities X, Y and Z in terms of their religious practices. Now, it may be that the name 'Hinduism' was applied to these communities but in terms of the characteristics you generally see associated with other religions, Hinduism seems to have all of them - a common history, a common set of entities worshipped, et cetera.

Indeed, the interesting thing about Hindu thinkers is not that there is nothing common to them. It is indeed the opposite. They were working with a number of different concepts and had arrived at certain opinions on such things as the nature of reality, and this was based on a common vocabulary. Now, it must be said that these opinions were not scientific opinions in that the thinkers proposing the ideas were quite unaware of the Scientific Method. They were also not original contributions to philosophy since most of these ideas had already been proposed by others before them. But the fact that they were thinking at very abstract levels about the nature of existence, et cetera, using a common set of abstractions indicates that they were working within a single intellectual framework which can now be recognized not only in terms of its attributes of common history and language but also in terms of commonality in terms of religion. 

As I have said before, I have been quite unimpressed by Jiddu Krishnamurti's reputation as a philosopher, but it must be said that his work influenced as important an idea as non-localization developed by David Bohm (as was brought to my attention by Manoj Saranathan at BAQC recently). This is not because of Jiddu Krishnamurti himself (Jiddu K. was simply surfacing ideas that had been around from well before him) but because of the level of abstract thinking that premodern Hindu thinkers engaged in. An example would serve to illustrate this.

As chance would have it, I had proposed to translate the naming of the moons of Pluto into Hindi. Unfortunately, I never did get the chance to complete this (I had only proposed this a few weeks ago and 3-4 weeks is usually not sufficient time for me to accommodate a work-item such as this in my very busy schedule). What I noticed during the process of translation is that words such as 'entity' were not a problem. (One would not expect to find equivalents of the word 'entity' in a language such as, say, Yuri  or Rombi - it will be noted that parts of Africa had not even discovered the wheel at the time of contact with Europe). There were equivalents to these words in Hindi and this is because of the levels of abstractions in which early Hindu writers engaged in.

In summary, methodology is important. The methodology of even leading Hinduism professors such as Wendy Doniger appear to have significant lacunae. As for Pankaj Mishra, that there is virtually no methodology in Mishra's article tells you all you need to know about how easily he is going to be able to defend his opinion, and how well founded his arguments are. The same with most of Paul Courtright's far out claims. Again, in a nutshell - methodology is key. How tenable the claims of future academics of Hinduism are will depend a lot on how strong their methodological focus is.

Update (Mar 21): The title of the post refers to the old joke that goes : "We have had two Popes named John Paul. When will we have one named George Ringo?" Note also that when I say that Pankaj Mishra's article has no methodology, I am saying that he is not making his argument based off any statistically strong methodology as well. It is okay to Op Ed on a matter like this, but facts are facts and opinions and opinions. And what I am saying is that Pankaj Mishra's opinions are not at all solidly founded.