The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has consistently earned high rankings in the world as the 12th best public university and inside the US, as the 2nd best, and boasts of being affiliated with several Nobel lauretes. Its noble motto, “let there be light” has echoes from the Vedic Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya. A University that boasts of such credentials usually means that it adheres to the highest academic standards in both teaching, course material, textbook prescriptions, recommended and additional reading, faculty-selection…well, at the least, it implies that when you enroll for a course there, you can reasonably guarantee that you will be taught accurate stuff. Especially history and subjects dealing with other cultures and religions.
I was initially amused when the desi blogworld’s excellent historian, JK pointed me to this. Under the course entitled Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India, the official textbook recommendations include works of such luminaries as Romila Thapar, Jawaharlal Nehru (Discovery of India), AK Ramanujan, and a host of Western scholars who’ve written on and about the Ramayana and Mahabharata. But what really prompted this post was this lecture (downloadable MP3, about 22 MB) by one, Professor Vinay Lal.
Note: The words in quotes are quoted verbatim from Vinay Lal’s lecture.
It’s best to clear some ground regarding the prescribed books for the course material.
- Discovery of India is not a work of history. At best, it is one man’s flowery ruminations on an India that existed only in his imagination. And neither was that man a historian–by qualification, education, or erudition.
- Romila Thapar’s credentials as a “historian” are too well known to be repeated again.
- AK Ramanujan’s work–its scholarship notwithstanding–is at odds with the primary sources on which he has written.
- As for the works of other Western scholars of Indology, I haven’t read them all but given my general mistrust in this area, your guess is as good as mine.
After some instructions about the course and assignment submissions, Vinay Lal begins his lecture on the Ramayana with what he calls the “politicization of Ramayana.” And you have a clue where this statement leads to: all the way from UCLA to Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India. And it doesn’t end there. Here’s a summary of sorts on the “politicization (sic) of the Ramayana” :
- Ram didn’t exist, and/or there’s no historical evidence that he existed. Whatever evidence is presented is not very credible. The politicization occurs here: based on Ram’s existence, some vocal groups of the majority, the Hindus, began an aggressive movement in the ’90s to build a temple on the supposedly-historical figure Ram, who was supposedly born in Ayodhya. But there was already a mosque, which was built by Babar on the spot after tearing down a preexisting Ram temple. There’s also no evidence that there existed a Rama temple, which Babar supposedly demolished to make way for the mosque. Whatever evidence to prove the earlier temple’s existence is again, suspect.
- The people who did this are part of the Sangh Parivar, whose political outfit is the BJP. The VHP & RSS are its wings and/or sister organizations. RSS is defined as an organization that does the “muscle work of Hindu nationalism.” As a description of muscle work, Vinay Lal says, “let’s say you want to organize riots in a city. That’s when you bring in the RSS.” As an example, he gives the Gujarat riots that occurred in 2002.
- The entire Sangh Parivar follows an ideology called Hindutva whose aim is to create a theocratic Hindu state where Muslims and other minorities have second class status.
This entire summation makes for about 20 minutes of torrid listening in a lecture that spans a total of about 50 minutes. What is curious is that Vinay Lal thought it appropriate to include information on something completely unrelated to Ramayana, the epic. Something so thoroughly unrelated that we wonder if this was a class on Indian Politics. Does UCLA teach about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in contemporary Europe in a class on the life of the Prophet Mohammad?
After the lapse of the said 20 minutes, Vinay Lal talks about the Ramayana and spouts the same, time-honoured nonsense. He also briefly mentions about a “different” Aryan people and “different” Indus Valley people. He says there’s a difference between the Ramayana and the Ram Katha. The difference: “Ram Katha is the story of Ram and Ramayana is its telling.” We wonder where the difference is.
Telling, (Noun)=An act of narration, Informing by words; Disclosing information or giving evidence about another
Story, (Noun)=A message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events; presented in writing or drama or cinema or as a radio or television program; A piece of fiction that narrates a chain of related events;A record or narrative description of past events
Professor Ignoramus Incompetentus
At the very basics, the noble professor reveals two things here: his utter ignorance of Sanskrit and an ability to comprehend the meaning of words. Ramayana literally means the way or path or journey of Rama. He then stitches himself into inextricable knots by mentioning Ram Katha, which is basically a derivative of the Dasharatha Jataka where Rama and Sita are brother and sister who finally marry. The Dasharatha Jataka is a Buddhist corruption of Valmiki’s original. Professor K.Krishnamurthy has shown with ample evidence that this is a perversion of the Ramayana. But you mention this to the likes of Vinay Lal, they have a stock answer: there’s no ONE single “authorized version” of Ramayana. And who authorizes this non-existence of an authorized version of the epic? Again, the likes of A K Ramanujan. This variation of the spit-and-run technique is called spit and teach. The template: try to deny the existence of something people revere. If that doesn’t work, simply say that there are multiple versions and that there’s no such thing as one original version. This opens up an unlimited field to pour your perversions in.
And then the good professor meanders for some time on how Jainism and Buddhism incorporated the Ramayana into their own tradition. Which is interesting because a “school of thought” related to Vinay Lal paints Buddhism as the faith that “saved” people from the evils of Hinduism. While I have the highest regard to Buddhism, I have a question for modern-day champions of Buddhism: if it arose to “save” people from Hinduism, why did it incorporate the Ramayana in its fold? An overwhelming portion of the Buddhist Jataka tales borrow from the Hindu lore including the Ramayana and the Puranas.
Which brings us to Vinay Lal who actually asks his students to “[you can] read the Ramayana as a sectarian text, like the Puranas.” A couple of points here. Lal terms the Puranas as sectarian texts meaning the 18 Puranas belong to and/or were written by certain sects. This is blatantly untrue and shows two things: Prof Lal is completely ignorant about the origin, role, purpose, content, and meaning of the Puranas, which means he’s incompetent to teach this subject. If he’s not ignorant, he’s deliberately mischaracterizing them, which is a direct blot on his sense of ethics. As to why he calls the Ramayana a sectarian text: Ravana, the villain of the Ramayana is a great devotee of Shiva while Rama is an avatar of Vishnu. Lo! The learned Professor characterizes the Ramayana as a “clash of Vishnu & Shiva,” and by logical extension, a clash between Shaivites and Vaishnavites. And by further logical extension, Hinduism is a religion full of warring sects.
Let’s break for applause at this dizzying display of academic genius.
Upon our return, we notice that the kind professor never mentions the fact that the Puranas were composed and grew over a few thousand years, authored by several people at different points in time. The erudite professor also doesn’t say that Rama worshipped Shiva several times in the Ramayana. More significantly, Rama worships Shiva at Rameshwaram (Tamil Nadu) for the explicit purpose of being absolved from the sin of killing Ravana, another preeminent Shiva devotee. Rama fully knew how zealously Shiva protected his devotees. Now we need the merciful professor to tell us exactly where the Shiva-Vishnu clash occurs. And we also notice the recurrence of the ignorance, competence, and sense of ethics phenomenon that Vinay Lal exhibits–or doesn’t exhibit.
Towards, the end of his lecture, the
nutty esteemed professor tries to fire his students’ analytical faculties by urging them to read the Ramayana and contemplate along the following lines:
- “In what way is Rama a model character and in what way is he not?”
- Rama killed Vali unjustly and didn’t listen to both sides. What does this tell about Rama?
- Think about the feminist views on Rama’s abandonment of Sita. Rama “decided” that his duties as a king were more important than the duties of him as a husband. (Note: “Decided” is an interesting word to use considering that there’s an entire corpus of Dharma that shows us that Rama acted in accordance with that Dharma when he abandoned Sita. Very briefly, it simply means that a King had no personal life and no sacrifice was too great to ensure the wellbeing of his subjects.)
- Professor Lal calls the entire bit about Rama’s incarnation of Vishnu as “humourous.” (Note: We wonder why or where the humour lies.)
- When reading passages, it is important to “read between the lines to figure out what is really going on.”
With that, Professor Vinay Lal ends his lecture.
And this 50-minute stream of nonsense passes off as graduate level academic teaching at a prestigious university in the United States. Vinay Lal’s ignorance of the very basics shines through with singular brilliance in every line his mouth spurts. And it’s not limited to ignorance: he says the most obviously inaccurate things. This wouldn’t have been a huge concern but for the fact that he is teaching scores of students false Ramayana. It’s quite obvious that Vinay Lal hasn’t read the Ramayana in the original much less a faithful translation. His pronounciation is awful: Ramayan=”Rmayan” Bharath=”Bhaarath” are two examples. And things like pronounciation are important especially when you’re teaching something that requires you to have advanced knowledge of Sanskrit. Altering a single phonetic sound is sufficient to cause a great shift in meaning in Sanskrit.
However, Vinay Lal’s greatest disservice is his distortionist approach of teaching the Ramayana. There is nothing in his lecture that makes students want to appreciate the epic. Till date, Ramayana is a living tradition in India and Rama here is as real to millions of Indians as their neighbours. Vinay Lal’s arrogant pronouncements, fraudulent “interpretations,” and his technique of asking (mis)leading questions ensure that students carry a negative impression of a hoary epic. His opening lines on politicization are completely uncalled for, and he says as if the said politics is a settled fact–if anything, it borders on hate speech. Upon graduation, Lal’s students armed with Lal’s lies will inadvertently propagate them in the academia and media adding hundreds of more gallons of poison in an already toxic environment. We’ve seen where that leads to even within a purely Indian context. It’s horrifying to think what Vinay Lal’s lectures on other, similar subjects will sound. Probably the same or more venomous. To think that he’s been doing this in various forms for at least two decades only magnifies the extent of his academic malice.
Professor Vinay Lal is incompetent to teach the Ramayana or any Indian epic/literature of antiquity. Teaching these requires a different kind of training, which Lal neither possesses nor looks likely to ever possess. I’m not sure if Lal’s lectures are audited and/or pass through critical scrutiny. He fails at the most fundamental levels. If the UCLA is serious about maintaining its reputation, it needs to do some serious rethink on Professor Lal.
Tailpiece: A bit of digging on this academic eminence yielded several results but I present three, which I think best represents where he comes from.
His views on American foreign policy and the pax Americana have earned him a place in David Horowitz’s book on the 101 ‘most dangerous’ professors in America today, while his critiques of extreme Hindu nationalism have made him a target of Hindutva venom in the US. These are reliable indicators, to his mind, that he is performing some useful public service, and that academics and scholars must remain vitally engaged in the wider public domain.
- This brilliant piece, which shows the other side of the “mild-mannered professor.”
During the day he is a mild-mannered Southeast Asian history professor, but in his office, safely behind his keyboard, Lal assumes his double identity as a radical ideological warrior of the broadest stripe. His personal webpage provides only the most indirect clue to this schizophrenic existence…
- David Horowitz’s book, The Professors: the 101 most dangerous academics in America, where Vinay Lal figures. Check the relevant excerpt.
Not that we didn’t know but more evidence the better. Another useful idiot serving his masters in the ranks of that other House Nigger par excellence, Pankaj Mishra.
Tags: Pseudosecularism Hall of Shame, Indian Politics, Politics, Pseudosecularism, Secularism, USA, US, American Academics, House Nigger, Professor Vinay Lal, Prof Vinay Lal, Vinay Lal, Prof Lal, Useful Idiot, Leftist Vinay Lal, Academic Poison, UCLA, Vinay Lal on Ramayana, Higher Education in the US, US University, UCLA Teaches Crap on India, Commentary