The Rajiv Malhotra Controversy and the Connection to Hindu Studies

In the past week, the blogosphere and Twitter have been aflutter with talk of the charges of plagiarism leveled against author and Hindu scholar Rajiv Malhotra by Richard Fox Young, an associate professor at Princeton Theological Seminary (Disclosure: The author recently edited an anthology of research papers presented at a conference convened by Rajiv Malhotra, under his guidance). The alleged plagiarism has been spelled out in specifics by the "victim" of the affair, Professor Andrew Nicholson of SUNY-Stony Brook, whose passages in Unifying Hinduism were ostensibly lifted by Malhotra. This incident requires debate about both the specific charges leveled against Mr. Malhotra along with the more important "big picture" about the nature of Hinduism and Indic studies as a discipline. Here, I provide my perspective on both components of the controversy, which as I hope the reader will see, are connected by the language and nature of the allegations.

Nicholson's Specific Allegations

In Scroll, Professor Nicholson pointedly accuses Rajiv Malhotra of both plagiarism and distorting his work. The one specific instance that Nicholson catalogs is a reference to a two-sentence excerpt of p. 163 of Malhotra's Indra's Net*:

Vivekananda's challenge was also to show that this complementarity model was superior to models that emphasized conflict and contradiction. He showed great philosophical and interpretive ingenuity, even to those who might not agree with all his conclusions.

In Nicholson's work (p. 14), Vijnanabhikshu replaces Vivekananda and the following portion is indeed very similar. Let us first deal with the plagiarism charge. Plagiarism can be variously defined, but one standard reading is "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; use (another's production) without crediting the source" (Meriam-Webster Dictionary). Is this what Malhotra is doing? In the only case cited by Nicholson, Malhotra provides an endnote (No. 19 of Chapter 8) immediately following the above passage, which credits Nicholson. Hence, the question of "not crediting the source"-- for the specific passage here-- never arises.

It could be argued that Malhotra cites pages 65 and 78 of Nicholson, whereas the passage's fountainhead is clearly page 14 of the same. These referenced pages expound upon the assertion Nicholson earlier makes about Vijnanabhikshu. Therefore, at worst, Malhotra has attributed the idea of his passage accurately to the corresponding thoughts where they occur in Nicholson, but has failed to attribute the phraseology to the specific page. Hence, it would appear that Malhotra's assertion that "the purpose of citing gets satisfied in spirit" is true. In fact, Malhotra here follows the rules I have been held to as a Princetonian, and which Professor Young has frenetically waved about on Twitter, to the letter, if not the (page) number. This is a lot of crib (a petition to pulp Malhotra's books) over what appear from example to be very minute errors-- ones that Malhotra had agreed to correct before Nicholson's op-ed was posted.

May there be other instances where Malhotra has not followed the rules at all? Perhaps, but the burden of documenting in detail such instances clearly lies with the accusers. And if Nicholson were constrained by space to only be able to provide one example, one should ask whether that example would not be best suited to prove the charges leveled. What about Newslaundry's allegations that Malhotra's misuse is meant to make his writing seem smarter? As someone who has closely read much of Malhotra's writing (see disclosure), the less said the better.

We then have the question of whether Malhotra "distorted" Nicholson's ideas. Nicholson specifies that Malhotra misrepresents him as having conflated the intellectual projects of Vijnanabhikshu and Vivekananda, whereas he holds them to be "adversaries." There is a fundamental problem here. Malhotra's passage in Indra's Net asserts that Vivekananda was "establish[ing] common ground between yoga and Vedanta...in the same manner" that "Vijnanabhikshu had contributed to the emergence of a proto-Hinduism" (162). Nicholson's words are referenced in order to describe what exactly Vivekananda's project was; a passage about Vijnanabhikshu is cited because Malhotra, independently of Nicholson, argues that, in fact, both projects were quintessentially the same.

Professor Nicholson is, of course, more than within his rights to contradict this conclusion factually. However, his argument transcends a mere critique of ideas and suggests that Malhotra is constrained to interpret the relationship between Vijnanabhikshu and Vivekananda as he himself does. Nicholson tells us, "Malhotra seems to have missed the part of my book where I say that 'Unifying Hinduism is a process, not an entity,' and then go on to describe the unresolved conflict between Bhedabheda and Advaita Vedanta... Malhotra ignores this distinction" (Scroll). Here, Nicholson insinuates that referencing an author's passages in affirmation requires one to also accept every related assertion that scholar makes. But surely, Professor Nicholson could not truly endorse such a view-- after all, Einstein references Maxwell's electrodynamics in his groundbreaking On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies (1905) but does not hold the "conventional view" of drawing a distinction between at rest and moving bodies, as Maxwell did.

The Larger Picture: Academic Study of Hinduism

It should be clear by now that this controversy has little to do with substantive questions of plagiarism. It has much more to do with the nature of Hindu Studies, which often unfairly privileges the non-practitioner's lens in studying Hinduism. As Professor Arvind Sharma, one of the few well-known practitioner voices within the field has pointed out, "if insiders and outsiders remain insulated, they develop illusions of intellectual sovereignty. Each is required to call the other's bluff." Hence, what is required to enrich the debate within the discourse about Hinduism is a genuinely even playing field in which the views of "insiders"--backed up with proper research and analysis--are also accorded respect, even if they controversially challenge the "conventional wisdom" of the outsiders, who form the large bulk of academia (a legacy of the colonial transfer of the study of Indian traditions from India to the West as "Indology"), and vice versa. This will allow for a free exchange of ideas that will help both sides hone their understanding of the traditions being discussed.

Even so, quite the opposite happens. Those who question the outsiders' academic consensus are often called Hindutva fundamentalists, even from within genuine academic discourse. This flippant rejection of the insider's voice as merely that of a "native informant," or as somehow compromised by political ideologies--without substantiation--privileges the outsider at the expense of the insider, leading to the "illusions of intellectual sovereignty" Sharma warns of. Yes, this means that those few insider voices, like Malhotra's, will have to ensure that their work is unimpeachable. Yes, some insider voices may hope to overthrow the outsiders and establish their own "Reign of (Academic) Terror." Yes, it means that more and more practitioners will have to enter academia.

But these stale, superficial statements do not derogate from the very formidable outsider oligopoly that exists within the field or paper over the problems for insiders of studying under the very outsiders, whose lens and methods they question, in order to access the certification to speak with authority. And that brings us to the present controversy with Rajiv Malhotra. Recently, Professor Young retweeted, "WHY DEBATE SOMEONE WHO IS *NOT* A SCHOLAR? I don't debate the plumber."

I wish to clarify here that I am not attributing motives, but only pointing out that such statements are symptomatic of the exclusionism that has characterized academic attitudes within the field. My worry is that the substance of Malhotra's arguments will be lost in the din of personal allegations. Certainly, these arguments are valuable, worthy of analysis and debate; they have earned a spot in the academic discourse thanks to no less than Francis Clooney. If a critic truly believes Malhotra's project is flawed, if he is convinced that his work is "a patchwork of other people's work minus attribution" (Scroll), he should come out and accept Malhotra's offer of a debate and nail him. Irrespective of whether you agree with Malhotra or not, intellectual debate is supposed to work by analyzing the ideas and evidence that someone puts forward, not by associating the person with political movements (interestingly, Malhotra critiques Hindutva, p. 47 of Being Different) or dismissing their credentials without analyzing their work. This should be the framework for both sides.

It may disturb the worldview of those who indulge in such mudslinging to know that several reasonably intelligent people who identify with liberal principles in the U.S. are admirers of some of Mr. Malhotra's work. The larger debate this controversy has stirred up is therefore over whose voice matters in Hindu studies, who can be excluded from genuine intelligent discussion, and whether a degree at a Western university and an intensive immersion within the tradition are different means of approaching knowledge that both merit respect or whether only those with the former are qualified to participate in the debate.

For me, academics within the field have singularly failed to answer these questions. If a non-practitioning academic is accused of misrepresenting the practitioner's tradition and is provided with a substantive rebuttal, does not the academic have some minimal responsibility to respond? Failure to respond--and worse, the tendency to label insiders who question as a "fundamentalists"--only widens the rift between insiders and outsiders in Hindu Studies and risks an irreconcilable break in the field. Attempting to exclude Malhotra by making procedural charges of plagiarism is not the answer. Engaging him is.

*I gather this based on a comparative reading of Unifying Hinduism and Indra's Net since Nicholson omits where in Malhotra's work the plagiarism occurs