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Academic Integrity: It's What's Missing at the AAR

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The American Academy of Religions (AAR), the largest body of professionals pursuing the academic study of religion, issued a statement this week in response to Penguin Books India's decision to withdraw and destroy copies of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History. In part, the AAR Board states:

...But to pursue excellence scholars must be free to ask any question, to offer any interpretation, and to raise any issue. If governments block the free exchange of ideas or restrict what can be said about religion, all of us are impoverished. It is only free inquiry that allows a robust understanding of the critical role that religions play in our common life. For these reasons the AAR Board of Directors fully supports Professor Doniger's right to pursue her scholarship freely and without political interference.

As a Religious Studies major before law school, and now an advocate engaged in promoting an accurate understanding of Hinduism and countering misrepresentations on a near daily basis, four words in the AAR statement -- to offer any interpretation -- leap out at me. To a lay person who deeply respects my religious tradition, it is this unconditional and self-proclaimed right "to offer any interpretation" which lies at the root of what is wrong with religious studies today. The Penguin decision is invoking all sorts of arguments supportive of free speech and academic freedom, and even against Hindu nationalism (as Doniger claims in the New York Times), but the principle that has not been raised by the AAR -- but must be -- is that of academic integrity.

The academic study of religion is considered to be an interdisciplinary endeavor which draws upon a variety of methodologies including sociology, psychology, history, and anthropology. What is interesting is that each of the major professional organizations in these fields privileges academic integrity. They assert the importance of academic freedom, but also clearly articulate academic integrity as a core value. The AAR does not. And the results of this glaring lapse are visible to all.

In a college class on Women and Religion, I was assigned an essay by the then Wendy O'Flaherty. I remember going to my professor after reading the piece, perplexed by the interpretations completely alien to my experiences of the tradition through family and swamis, the Hindu communities I was a part of, trips to India, and my own reflective readings. What my professor, also a former president of the AAR, said to me has stuck with me ever since -- being published or being lauded as an expert doesn't mean one's work isn't just speculation.

As my studies progressed, I soon realized that much of what I was reading about Hinduism from the Academy was just that -- speculation, or in the case of Doniger-O'Flaherty, wild, erotic, and random speculation. Or to put it rather bluntly, she was just making the stuff up!

This was the late 80s and early 90s -- arguably the peak of Doniger's career -- a time when she wielded great influence over the field and was churning out a large number of doctoral students or "experts" in Hinduism. It was when I came across Tales of Sex and Violence or her earlier Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva that I began to wonder why Doniger seemed obsessed with an ostensible intersection of spirituality and fetish that few practicing Hindus would recognize. Where I found the answers to spiritual liberation, Doniger only saw sexual liberation! Hinduism, contrary to her "alternative" readings, isn't only about sex (or blood and gore), and qualifying whether an interpretation is based in the realities of any group of believers or simply academic conjecture is central to academic integrity.

The AAR might consider what the American Historical Association reminds its members:

"Professional integrity...requires awareness of one's own biases and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead."

Since 2003, my colleagues at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and I been attending the AAR's annual conference in our effort to follow the state of Hindu studies. While there always have been and now are a growing number of scholars who are committed to presenting emic understandings of Hinduism, we find each year that the "in crowd" created by Doniger at the AAR has yet to shift in terms of power and influence. Freudian analysis, tenuous and selective translations, conjecture, Orientalism, and political baggage from India reign supreme and are the basis of far too many sessions about Hinduism which have little to do with the beliefs and practices of every day Hindus.

Should scholars be free "to offer any interpretation" as the AAR holds, or would the purpose of religious studies be better served if they are free to study any interpretation grounded in religion as it is lived? Is any translation and any interpretation supporting foregone conclusions, or foregone obsessions as with Doniger, fair and ethical? What of the role of a scholar as a teacher? Would my professors have accepted just any interpretation I offered? As a student, I was instructed to read the texts with a concern for meaning, the author's possible intentions, and historical context, amongst other factors. As one scholar friend said, "However creative an interpretation, it cannot be completely divorced from the text and a good reading of text is self-critical, aware of one's own presuppositions, and made with a diligence to not read into the text."

The AAR must also realize that what scholars of religion study and publish is not in a vacuum -- there are real people who are affected by the absence of a code of ethics and professional responsibility. The wild conjectures about Hinduism by some AAR scholars have ended up at best on the placards of museum exhibits misinforming millions of American visitors about Hindu traditions, and at worst, White supremacy web boards putting in harms way non-white Hindu Americans.

The Statement of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) offers a perfect model for the AAR. It says simply and poignantly:

1) Do no harm.
2) Be open and honest about your work.

To do no harm is proclaimed to be a "primary ethical obligation" of researchers who are urged to "think through the possible ways that the research might cause harm," including harm to dignity. They are also to weigh carefully "the potential consequences and inadvertent impacts of their work."

While the AAR Board waxes part poet and part martyr in defense of Wendy Doniger's academic freedom and reaffirms its commitment to the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, it fails to reflect on whether Doniger, who has been described by the BBC as "known for being rude, crude and very lewd in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit Academics," is abiding by the principles of that very statement. It says, in part:

"Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."

"...their [college and university teachers] special position in the community imposes special obligations....Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others."

Indeed there are the scores of scholar members of the AAR who abide by the ethical standards set forth by their respective institutions. They are guided not by sensationalism or any personal crusade, but by their own ethics and commitment to study religion in a way that is both reflective and respectful of religion as it is lived. As a governing body for professionals seeking to understand the interplay between religion and humanity, however, the AAR must recognize the importance and need for its own self-reflection, self-regulation, and self-policing, even if only for a few bad apples.

And if a few bad apples aren't reason enough for the AAR to adopt its own Code of Ethics, perhaps the reminder that a scholar is not just a researcher, but a mentor to future generations will be.