Authenticity of “Dharmic” knowledge and risks in ethnography, By Tenzin Tsundue

Today one can find Buddhism being used in multiple countries and across varying disciplines. We see more adaptations of “secular” forms of Buddhism in the West,  specifically in the field of science with an explosion of mindfulness-based treatments and self-help books.

My research revolves around a Buddhist master who offers a unique way of practicing Buddhism and applying its precepts in modern society. One of his major concerns lies with the depiction of dharma (Buddha’s teachings) among his followers and more broadly. Here I examine one single Facebook post where he recommends two books namely Rajiv Malhotra’s  Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism & Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. He suggests that these books are “antidotes to those who confuse “modernization” with “westernization” and “globalization.” His concern echoes attempts to decolonize knowledge and remove ethnocentrism in academia.  According to him, the transnational Buddhist community is “learning about or propagating the dharma in a distorted way subtly penetrated by dominant western philosophical assumptions, language and terminology.” He writes that even Buddhist communities have now started becoming “western” and that reading the books mentioned above would shed light into the “hidden non dharmic assumptions within one’s cherished beliefs.” Not addressing this issue would taint the dharma and cause further deterioration.

As both a Buddhist and an upcoming scholar of religion, this interests me in that it shows how certain religions can be misrepresented and distorted intentionally or otherwise. Also, as a researcher, his “warnings” echo prominent ideas in anthropology and the academy more broadly where knowledge and “knowledge management” are under critical scrutiny (Strathern, 2006,194). Anthropologists have become highly aware of the problematic beginnings of our discipline, of how cultures were misinterpreted, cast into stereotypes, and categorized for the benefit of the colonizers. Is it possible to completely rid anthropology of all the ethnocentric biases and remnants of colonialism? Would research be richer and more nuanced if reported in different languages other than English? More specifically, who owns dharma and how much do both researchers and specific communities owe each other in representing the “authentic” form?

An example of a struggle over knowledge is the case of Jeffrey Kripal who faced intense backlash and received threats from Indian scholars and the government for his work on the Hindu saint Ramakrishnan. Kripal’s book “Kali’s Child” uses psychoanalysis and ethnography to demonstrate that the Hindu saint could be homosexual. Several followers and scholars took offence at this claim. Due to the backlash Kripal had to forgo his pursuit of Hindu mystical traditions, despite having studied it for more than 15 years.  This outcome illustrates the exponential risk involved in anthropological studies.

As the question of authenticity arises both from within the tradition and outside, it is crucial to understand our roles as researchers. Using multidisciplinary theories and research tools help  anthropologists to provide nuanced descriptions and interpretations of human society. Findings from research and the knowledge of the sample population share a dynamic interplay in which each influences and feeds off the other. As my example of the Buddhist teacher and the scholar of Hinduism show, there are real life consequences to contending versions of the “authenticity”.

Kripal, J. J. (1998). Kali’s child: The mystical and the erotic in the life and teachings of Ramakrishna. University of Chicago Press.

Kripal, S. P. (2018, August 06). The Queerness of It All: An Interview with Jeffrey Kripal. Retrieved from https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-queerness-of-it-all-an-interview-with-jeffrey-kripal/

Strathern, M. (2006). A community of critics? Thoughts on new knowledge. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12(1), 191-209.