Preparing to Teach About Hinduism in the College Classroom

Posted On 9 Oct 2020 by religionmatters

Guest Blogger: Sabrina D. MisirHiralall, Ph.D.

In my book, Confronting Orientalism: A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu Dance, I point to the different pedagogical spaces that I teach in and the pedagogy that I employ while in each space.  When I teach in the pedagogical space of the classroom, I regularly encounter students who have misconceptions of Hinduism. 

First, students often misunderstand Hindu metaphysics.  They frequently point to Hinduism as a polytheistic religion, but this is not the case.  Hinduism is a monotheistic religion that believes in One Supreme Being who manifests in many different forms, at many different times, and for many different purposes.  Hindu scriptures refer to the Supreme Being as One.  I tell my students to think of the many different names and roles that they have.  For example, one person might be a student, a mom, a sister, a wife, a friend, an employee, and so forth.  Even though this person has different roles and perhaps various nicknames while in each of these roles, this person is still the same individual.  Likewise, One Supreme Being has many names and several roles according to Hinduism.  This does not mean that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.  As I said, Hindu scriptures state that the Supreme Being is One. 

Second, students repeatedly have a difficult time understanding religious epistemology from a Hindu perspective.  My students read Chapter Five: Religious Epistemology With a Focus on the Ramayana from my abovementioned book that discusses the Ramayana as a part of Hindu history.  Students often read a very watered down, skeleton of a skeleton version of the Ramayana in Hinduism courses and Eastern religion courses.  However, the Ramayana is thousands of pages long.  Furthermore, students question how the fantasy-like characters of the Ramayana, such as Shri Hanumanji, could be historical and not mythological.  In my book, I discuss this in depth as I share archaeological evidence.  However, my goal in the chapter was not to prove the Ramayana as history.  For Hindus, faith is all the necessary proof that one needs.

Some versions of the Ramayana misrepresent Hinduism either in the text or the title.  For example, Ramayana: Divine Loophole (Hindu Mythology Books, Books on Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Indian Books for Kids) points to Gods and Goddesses, which misrepresents Hinduism.  These phrases should not be used lightly without acknowledging the complexity of Hindu metaphysics.  Hinduism is a monotheistic religion according to Hindu scriptures.  The title of this version of the Ramayana is an example of a misrepresentation of Hinduism as polytheistic.  Evidently, the title disregards the complexity of Hindu metaphysics.  The media regularly employs a Western, Orientalized framework when discussing Hinduism.  I illustrate how to return to a de-Orientalized framework in my abovementioned text. 

The Life of Pi likewise misrepresents Hinduism as polytheistic – at least the film does.  These media sources promote the problem of Orientalism, as Edward Said acknowledges when he discusses how the West develops misrepresentations of the East based on what the West wants the East to be. 

Individuals who wish to learn about Hinduism should study primary scriptures of Hinduism because there are many Western and now Eastern resources that are tainted with Orientalism, and thus, misrepresent Hinduism.  For instance, the Shri Ramacharitamanas by Tulasīdās, G. & Prasad, R. C. (1991) serve as a primary source.  One must read this text critically to understand Hindu metaphysics and ethics.  For instance, although the text may mention “Gods” it does so in a manner that refers to manifestations of the Supreme Being.  A verse from the text clearly portrays Hinduism as monotheistic.

“Eka Aniiha Aruupa Anaamaa

Aja Saccidaanamda Paradhaamaa

Byaapaka Bisvaruupa Bhagavaanaa

Tehim Dhari Deha Carita Krta Naanaa

God, who is One, desireless, formless, nameless and unborn, who is Truth,

Consciousness and Bliss, who is Spirit Supreme, all-pervading, universal, has

become incarnate and performed many deeds. (Tulasīdāsa & Prasad, 1991, p. 13).”

Thus, one who does not read this text carefully may still misinterpret and misportray Hinduism.  For this reason, Hindus usually read this text with a respected Guruji (spiritual teacher for a lack of a better phrase) to help them to understand the text critically.

To continue, as a faith-based Hindu and Kuchipudi dancer, my research on Hinduism develops from my lived-experience as a Hindu.  Those who read my book will understand the challenges that I encounter in higher education as I teach about Hinduism.  I also convey how I confront the pedagogical issues that arise in my text.  I share my dances on my YouTube channel to supplement my book.  My dances are not meant as entertainment but rather serve a pedagogical purpose to educate about Hinduism through Hindu dance.

I ask educators to please teach Hinduism with caution and attention to ensure that Orientalism does not occur and misrepresentations of Hinduism do not develop.  Hinduism is often taught on the surface through a textbook from educators who do not know or understand the religion.  It is unfortunate that this habitually adds to the Orientalizing legacy.  Those who teach about Hinduism should do so from a de-Orientalized pedagogical stance that deals with the issues of Orientalism.  Educators may contact me at MisirHiralall.S@gmail.com for suggestions of resources or to discuss this further. 

Author Bio:

Dr. Sabrina D. MisirHiralall is an editor at the Blog of the American Philosophical Association who currently teaches philosophy, religion, and education courses solely online for Montclair State University, Three Rivers Community College, the University of South Carolina Aiken, and St. John’s University. She is a Kuchipudi Indian classical Hindu dancer who frequently presents and dances in higher education as she confronts Orientalism through a variety of pedagogical spaces. Aside from several journal publications, she published Confronting Orientalism: A Self-Study of Educating Through Hindu Dance, and also served as the lead editor for Religious Studies Scholars as Public Intellectuals, which is published in the Routledge in Religion Series.