Scholars of Hinduism Under Attack
Scholars of Moses or Jesus haven't had to duck eggs or death threats lately. Why are Hindu groups targeting professors?
On December 27, 1986, Arthur Hertzberg, Yvonne Haddad, and I were asked by the American Historical Association (AHA) to lead a plenary session on militant fundamentalisms in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. That was the first time I dealt with the subject. Later, a six-year study for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences would prepare me for a topic that remains too relevant, even urgent, today.
The AHA asked my colleague Wendy Doniger to respond to all three, from the viewpoint of a scholar of Hinduism. Could Hinduism even have fundamentalisms, she asked. As she explored and observed how leaders of radical Hindu movements handled sacred texts, she changed her mind, and commented wisely.
Now she and her students and friends in America, India, and around the globe are seeing militant Hinduism up close. Shuttling as I did between Chicago and Emory this year (18 commutes to date), I had occasion to track one of these "up-close" stories, that of Paul Courtright.
Courtright's scholarly book, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, went unnoticed except in specialized academic circles since it was published in 1985. Then some militants were stirred to be critical of it, rejecting the psychoanalytic elements in Courtright's analysis of a Hindu god with the head of an elephant. While a few are themselves scholars, most of the roused attackers lack context and understanding. Courtright and other experts have had death threats, while others know that persecution or exclusion from India could await them.
Doniger has not escaped completely. She had to duck an egg thrown by a militant Hindu as she lectured in London. In the world of these scholars, writing about gods from some scholarly distance is a century-old practice. As for the psychoanalytic aspects in Ganesa, Freudians and post-Freudians have had their rounds with Moses, Paul, Christians, and Jews through the ages, without having to duck eggs, harassment, or death threats.
What is going on? So far as I can tell, we have here an international instance of hyper-multiculturalism, an approach to learning now being moderated in America. Its original proponents held that only those who were "of" a people, whose ancestors shared an experience, etc., could teach and write about them and it. In their prime, multiculturalist expressions blighted tenure decisions, led to negative reviews, and probably harmed some careers. Today we are learning again that, while heirs of a tradition have a special claim on stories and interpretations, at least at certain stages, good stories are too good to be hoarded by those who claim insider-status. All great literature, canonical or not, is born of particular experiences, and if it is great, it gets shared.