This: Two recent controversies come to mind in which Hinduism has bubbled up into the broader consciousness of the religious studies blogosphere. The first is the debate about Reza Aslan’s now-defunct CNN show Believer (covered at length in The Immanent Frame), an episode of which drew criticism from the American Hindu community for its inadequate and offensive representation of Hinduism, and from scholars of religion, like Michael Altman, for its inadequate (and offensive?) representation of scholarship. The second is the recent legal case in Encinitas, California, over a proposed program, funded by the Jois Foundation, to teach yoga in public schools. In this case, in which historian of American religion Candy Gunther Brown (Indiana University) testified as an expert witness, a scholar took her trade into the public sphere with mixed results, and mixed reactions from other scholars (see Philip Deslippe for the Religious Studies Project).

Together, these cases delineate an uneven terrain of post-Orientalist ennui. Whereas for the producers of Believer, the Aghoris exhibit a most extreme—and marketable—form of religious other, for the appeals court in San Diego, yoga seems entirely unremarkable, mainstream, and inoffensively nonreligious. Both cases are thus highly teachable examples of how representations of Asian religions become politicized in the American public, and how little has changed for the consumer of religion in the twenty-first century, bounding uncontrollably between leering Orientalist voyeurism and reactive cultural defense, illiberal missionary polemic and shameless cultural appropriation. But these two cases also publicize the ponderous constraints of teaching Hinduism in the American university.

Scholars of Hinduism, like others inheriting the mantle of Orientalism, are called to apologize on many sides: to liberals who love yoga but abhor caste; to heritage students seeking to transmute their brownness from target into armor; to university administrations chasing enrollment, for whom Islam and Buddhism remain more reliable non-Christian attractions; and to diaspora critics, informed by their own brand of postcolonialism, who dispute the right of any (Western) outsider to represent Hinduism and who refuse the very project of Hindu studies as a slanderous, imperialist enterprise.

It makes sense in this embattled situation to renounce essentialism of any kind and to offer the history of Western representations of Hinduism as a substitute for the history of Hinduism itself. As Altman tells us:

Americans have argued about representations of religion in India since the late eighteenth century. Aslan’s episode and the Hindu backlash is just the latest example in this long history. Each of these battles over representation reveals little about religion in India. Instead, they reveal more about the concerns of those involved and the questions at stake in their historical moment.

What are the questions at stake in our historical moment? Do they differ so much from theirs? If not—if so little has changed in the representational history of Asia in America—do we scholars think this a good thing or not?

No doubt the American reception of Hinduism should provide a crucial—indeed, the first—backdrop to a scholarly account of a phenomenon like Believer. But in its tone and orientation, this kind of historicism offers little satisfaction to Hindus and even less impetus to those interested in the academic study of Hinduism. To the former it seems to shrug: (Mis)representation happens. BTW: Aslan’s not a “real” scholar of religion. To the latter it suggests that the study of Hinduism in America and the study of Hinduism in South Asia are entirely independent fields of inquiry—that, say, the history of yoga and tantra in ancient and medieval (or early modern and colonial) India should have little bearing on public debates about yogis and tantrics in present-day America. For a previous generation of “classically” trained Indologists, such a sentiment exposes everything that is wrong with the field of religious studies in its abandonment of the painstaking but rewarding work—grounded in rigorous language training—of recovering the textual and material past in favor of the easy tricks of deconstruction and the comforts of a presentist and regional solipsism. As Don Davis recently asked, critical Asian studies is one laudable imperative, but whither the study of the peoples of Asia, present and past?

The problem that Altman seems to renounce is one that the public—colonial and postcolonial—has always demanded of scholars: Is there such a thing as Hinduism? What is it? The widely divergent reactions to the yoga program in Encinitas and the Aghoris depicted on Believer reveal more than repetitions in the reception of Hinduism in American religious history. They also designate a problem for the study of religion: How do we translate—how do we teach—South Asian forms of asceticism? Is such a thing possible?

On the one hand there is the long history of asceticism in India, which tends not to register at the level of public debate, even though it is amply represented in the classroom. Pick up any textbook of Hinduism and you will read about the “shramana” (ascetic-renouncer) movement. In reaction to the village-based, householder religion of Vedic-Brahmanism, these renunciate groups exploded along the urban centers of Gangetic valley in the mid-first millennium BCE, yielding a plethora of religious forms, including what would become Jainism, Buddhism, and the more orthodox (that is, not Veda-denying) traditions associated with yoga.

One influential scholar of this foundational moment in Hindu history is Patrick Olivelle, who has generally argued that the massive textual output of Brahmanical groups around the turn of the common era—including legal texts like the famed “Laws of Manu” and the epic Mahabharata—must be read as reformative reactions to the success of these renunciate movements. Emblematic of this reformation is the figure of the king, who came to be idealized as having embodied ascetic forms of restraint (as famously illustrated in the Bhagavadgita), even as he was bound to exercise the violence of the state. In other words, at the very heart of its canon, and in its ideal vision of the social world, the “Hindu” (Brahmanical) orthodoxy, rooted in the life-affirming sacrifice and a strongly gendered domestic ideology, attempted to contain and harness the other-worldly powers of renunciation.

The theme of a Brahmanical dialectic with renunciate groups also distinguishes scholarship on tantra, a subsequent, medieval iteration of asceticism in South Asia. The extremities of skull-wielding tantrics like the Kapalikas (precursors to the Aghoris) remain popular attractions for undergraduates raised on VICE Media. But as Alexis Sanderson has shown in his writings on tantra, this period of religious history is marked by a broad range of “tantric” groups, many of whom were able to win patronage at medieval royal courts across South and Southeast Asia. These groups are best categorized, again, in relation to Brahmanism: their success was a result of strategic appropriation and repudiation of “mainstream” norms defined by the orthodoxy.

At least since Edward Said, enlightened, scholarly observers of South Asia have tended either to eschew or deconstruct the myth of “mystic India” as popularized in the Western reception of Orientalist writings. But within the study of Hinduism, scholars like Olivelle and Sanderson have already posed a formidable reply to the “mystic India” stereotype, one that, I argue, should have at least something to say about how scholars might reframe contemporary debates about yoga and tantra. What they show is that asceticism is essential to Hinduism not because it has ever been the statistical norm among Hindus (not to mention Jains and Buddhists), and not only insofar as it poses the soteriological framework of karma, samsara, and moksha. Rather the very idea of renunciation has always held tremendous cognitive and cultural power within Hindu and related thought; its bodily practices have always proved highly efficacious signifiers in the mainstream of Indic society and polity. If Hinduism is an “ascetic” religion, it is not a religion of ascetics, but a religion that contains asceticism as part of its worldly orientation in some potentially unique way. Articulating this inner-worldly mode of containment has long been a worthy challenge to the field.

Should Aslan have tried to capture the situation of tantric Aghoris relative to mainstream Brahmanical norms and Indian society at large? Could the appeals court in San Diego County have pondered the coercive, political potential of yoga before it acquiesced to its implantation in the heart of the American middle class? What would a defense of Hinduism within the American-Indian diaspora look like were it informed by a more honest appraisal of the role of the Brahmanical caste (properly, varna) in Hindu history and the role of communalism in contemporary Indian politics? Whether or not they fall on deaf ears—in the classroom or in the courts—these seem to me fair questions emerging from a scholarly view of the Hindu tradition that embraces both its globalized context and its Indian roots.

To pursue the full implications of such questions, on the other hand, requires more than historically sensitive descriptions. While scholars of Hinduism have made great strides in setting asceticism in a wider social and historical perspective than seen from the level of the average yoga studio, it is also true that such scholars’ reluctance to engage the critical genealogy of religious studies continues to form an obstacle to placing this scholarship at the forefront of the field, in view of its most timely concerns.

Consider, for example, the genealogical links (via Louis Dumont and Jan Heesterman) that connect Olivelle’s account of renunciation and society in ancient India with Max Weber’s formative, comparative experiments in asceticism. Among scholars of South Asia, Weber’s view of caste and “other worldly” asceticism as two factors that hindered the development of economic rationalism in precolonial India is well rehearsed. If it seems simple enough to dismiss his thesis as the product of Western bias, that dismissal also skirts important questions that supersede cultural polemic. For one, caste and asceticism are hardly fictions, as we have seen. A review of their recurrence in colonial-era literature does not suddenly reduce Manu’s Laws (and their reception history) to ashes. More importantly, over a century after his essay on Hinduism and Buddhism, the valuation of Weber’s legacy within the study of South Asian religions remains unresolved (though happily revived in recent ventures).

Is asceticism—and in particular its relation to rationality—the right category around which to frame the history of Hinduism in the first place? Moreover, is not this historiographic setting also crucial to our pedagogy? If we are to debate such things as yoga and tantra in the public sphere, shouldn’t we also translate for that public the way in which a conception of asceticism, as in Weber’s formative project and elsewhere, comprises the very notion of the West? Shouldn’t we scholars and teachers find ways to place Indian asceticisms in a comparative frame with their perennial Christian counterparts, rather than simply within the problematic of Western representations of Asia?

Such questions may set a ludicrously high bar for public discourse about Hinduism, and religion in general, but as aspiration they seem preferable to the tiresome East-meets-West echo chamber that still haunts our classrooms (let alone popular media). I would add that scholars of religion have for some time acknowledged these classrooms as crucial sites of pedagogy for second-generation diaspora students. If so, those students deserve an intellectual space that reaches beyond cultural mediation.

Most importantly, such questions suggest what may be gained by a further rectification of the historical and the historiographic in Hindu studies. I suspect, for example, that one reason why yogis and tantrics remain so alluring, and also so difficult to translate in popular and scholarly cultures, has to do with their categorial ambiguity, both in Asia and in America. If the history of Indian asceticism is a history of worldly interactions with Brahmins, what gets lost in translation is not only the somewhat embarrassing issue of caste but more importantly the figure of the priest, the other key member in the Weberian typology. Unlike monks and ascetics, priests have not fared well in modernity. But what do we lose when the concept of priesthood is erased—hastily superseded—from our comparative thinking?

The Aghori’s preferred implement is the skull cup (kapala) as begging bowl. The very matter of death becomes the sole connection to the living, a highly contorted repudiation of the urgency of sustenance. Scholars of religion know well not to bite the hands that feed them, in the public or in the classroom. But they also seek—sometimes resentfully, sometimes valiantly—to offer some sort of pedagogy in return. Our version of this gift of memento mori can take many forms. Irony is only one. Invitation—into our canons, into our problematics—would be another.

Image credit: Kapala, skull-cup. Made of human bone. ©Trustees of the British Museum, released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.