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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Do we have NOT to like what we work on?

Many people tend to think that being "scientific" means being detached. In order to write scholarly about a subject, one should not be involved in it. Is this really possible? Probably not, but even if it were, would it be desirable?

One clearly sees that Friedhelm Hardy (the scholar of Śrīvaiṣṇavism who died untimely in 2004) loves what he is working on. This might make him go too far (in my opinion) in defending Śrīvaiṣṇavism, for instance his treatment of the devadāsī issue seems to me to go too far in forgetting that the institution of devadāsī was itself declining (although he admits the decline at first):

[…] one further topic cannot be avoided: the music and dance professionally cultivated by the devadāsīs. […] Missionaries like the Abbé Dubois and some Westernized Indians, encountering a presumably declining stage in the development of the devadāsī institution, attacked it with a puritanical fanaticism which was equalled only by their complete ignorance of (or unwillingness to understand) its history and the motivation behind it. They succeeded only too well in their task: the abolition by law of the devadāsīs was regarded as a necessary reform of South Indian temple culture, but it also resulted in the total destruction of one major segment of that culture through which for one and a half millennia deep-rooted Southern religious sentiments had expressed themselves. The whole range of art that had surrounded the temple was eliminated, and even the whole issue of temple eroticism was prejudiced. […] Viṣṇu […] derives enjoyment from the art of the girls who are dedicated to him, just as he would enjoy the tulsī, kuṅkuma, camphor, etc. which are offered to him in the pūjā. And just as he returns these objects after the worship to the devotee, these girls are returned. Thus it seems possible to interpret [a man's] union with [a devadāsī] […] as a special type of prasādam.

(Hardy 1977, pp.138-140)

But I still tend to think that being too fond of one's subject is better than hating it (as is often the case). I remember my professor of Indian history, who was an excellent scholar but who really despised Indians, probably like some 19th c. British. He would say things such as "Although they have such an enormous amount of costs, the Indians were unable to build proper harbours until the British came".

Do you dare sharing your attitude towards what you study?
On Hardy, see my post "Do we have to write in a dry, unadorned style?", written on November the 23rd 2011.


ombhurbhuva said...

This prasadam could come with HIV as an added extra. Is this not inverted orientalism?

elisa freschi said...

Well, thanks for expressing your view. I am myself (as you might have understood from my post) uncertain about Hardy's attitude. His style is superbe, and I like the fact that he gives credit to the authors he is studying. By contrast, the passage I quote seems to me to violate too openly the free will of the girl. But I though of readers blaming me for being too much a feminist.

ombhurbhuva said...

I recently saw this program about the devadasis on the bbc.
The gloss of religion and culture on prostitution, was it ever really dharmic even back in the 'good old days'?

elisa freschi said...

That's a difficult question. I tend to be suspicious about all attitudes of the type "the old, good days…". However, the program you mention is quite clear about the intricacies of the issue of devadasis:
—the actual love of (most of?) the girls for the Deity (by the way: a male Deity, unlike what is said in the article)
—the upper education to which the devadasis were entitled
—the fact that the devadasis were part of a complex net of dance, music and arts which had the temple as its centre. Taking away the devadasis might have indeed contributed to the decay of the rest
—(apart from social and economical problems linked to the devadasis' families).

Anonymous said...

But I still tend to think that being too fond of one's subject is better than hating it (as is often the case).

It is interesting to see the last parenthetical remark from an "insider". :-)

Worth wondering why people work on something if they hate it...

elisa freschi said...

Who is the insider? Me or you?;-)

As for working on something one hates, I can see two reasons:
1. one works on something just in order to earn a salary (I would not expect this to be the case in Indology, but in fact it is, and quite often).
2. one enjoys engaging critically with something (a sadist attitude?)

Am I forgetting something?

Anonymous said...

maybe the haters' case is similar to the case of people who, for instance, are against the Holocaust and study it precisely because they are against genocide, or the case of the atheists who study theology in order to be prepared (or read enough) to engage in a proper debate with a priest. does that make sense?

elisa freschi said...

Hi Aleix, nice to see you around again!

I never met anyone who hated India/Indian philosophy/… as much as I would expect one to hate the Holocaust. Did you?
I think the example of the atheist fits more. But I am not sure that the motivation is the will to be able to engage in debate with a priest/an upholder of Vedānta/etc. I rather think that there might be some sort of pleasure in detecting mistakes. Something like "Look, how naïve they are!" (and, consequently, "how smarter I am!")".

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