2016-06-30
In a recent column, prominent religion professor Martin E. Marty says that scholars of Moses or Jesus haven't had to "duck eggs or death threats" lately and asks why Hindu groups are attacking U.S. professors of Hinduism. This unfortunately shows that people in the academy are still talking past those in the Hindu community rather than attempting to have a conversation. Many Hindus have expressed concern about the quality and nature of Hinduism scholarship emanating from the U.S. academy. What kind of work has drawn criticism from the Hindu community? Here are just a few examples:
  • In his book on Ganesha, the beloved elephant-headed deity of Hindus, Emory University professor Paul Courtright made claims that Ganesha's trunk represents a limp phallus and the fondness for sweets of this child deity carries "overtones" of a desire for oral sex.

  • University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger has been quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer calling the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text, "a dishonest book" that "justifies war."

  • In her article on Hinduism in Encarta, which serves as a mainstream introduction for general audiences, Doniger highlights what she calls "contradictions" in the Hindu tradition--often using deprecating parenthetical asides, unusual for such an encyclopedia entry.

  • In "Kali's Child," Rice University professor Jeffrey Kripal portrays Sri Ramakrishna, a much-revered Hindu spiritual leader, as a sexually abused homosexual child-molester.

    "Kali's Child" has become a standard reference on Ramakrishna in the U.S. academia; the works of Courtright, Kripal and Doniger are similarly served up as mainstream interpretations of the Hindu tradition, finding their way into museum exhibits and primary references for encyclopedias.

    Many learned people in the Hindu community, most of them non-academicians, have take a critical look at the work of these scholars. Rajiv Malhotra's RISA Lila I: Wendy's Child Syndrome examines the work and assertions of Doniger, Courtright, Kripal and Sarah Caldwell. When the Cigar Becomes A Phallus by Vishal Agarwal And Kalavai Venkat is a detailed examination of Paul Courtright's book on Ganesha. And my article Are Hinduism Studies Prejudiced? compares Microsoft Encarta's article on Hinduism, written by Doniger, with articles about other major world religions. The list goes on.

    So are we critics just ticked-off Hindus trying to censor legitimate scholarship? Is this just a "fundamentalist" response of "militants," as Marty and others imply? The central question, at least for me, has been "what constitutes knowledge." As I write in my article, The Courtright Twist, I am bothered less by the issues of "blasphemy" (which is less meaningful in the Hindu context), but by the question of whether this purported scholarship manufactures a distorted understanding of the Hindu tradition. If the academy is engaged in the production of knowledge, its freedom of speech is only meaningful within that boundary. Otherwise there is no way to prevent anyone's personal fantasies or works of fiction being passed off as non-fiction academic writing.

    Critical articles, including my own, raise the issue of the quality of scholarship of some of these prominent members of the academy. These articles have pointed out errors, inconsistencies, mistranslations, missing references, suspect theories and interpretative techniques and, in some cases, troubling evidence of outright prejudice displayed by the academicians.

    These arguments may be refutable. But, given the widespread support they have received from the Hindu community, it would behoove the scholars to engage with their critics and enter into a dialogue about the issues. The website Sulekha.com invited Wendy Doniger to offer a response to one of the early articles that Rajiv Malhotra had written. She refused.

    Let's look at what happened when the Hindu community tried to address Courtright's work. Serious questions have been raised about the book--such as the non-existence of the references that Coutright cites in some cases, and their clear misconstrual in others.

    A community group started a petition to express their concern about Courtright's book. The petition contained quotes from the book that were considered offensive and hurtful; it asked for an apology from the author and a republication of the book with clarification and corrections. While this petition was not initiated or signed by many of the people who had written critical articles, including by Rajiv Malhotra or myself, the large number of signers reflected the Hindu community's widespread concern about the book. This concern was being expressed in a democratic way.

    When this petition was online, a few posts among thousands contained some angry language against the scholars. The anonymity of the internet easily allows many forms of verbal diarrhea visible in practically any large internet message board, especially on a contentious issue. Because of the posted threats, the organizers of the petition closed it down. Even though the petition had tremendous momentum, the organizers apparently did not want to provide a platform for personal threats of any kind.

    Yet Marty reduces the entire debate about the Courtright book to stating that "some militants were stirred to be critical of it." He expresses the hope that "saner voices will prevail."

    In reality, it's the academicians themselves who have marginalized "saner" voices by framing the issue as one of "death threats" and "militants" - using a few random posts on an unmoderated group to sideline the hundreds of pages of reasoned criticism that has been put out by the community. Doniger wants to make it an issue of "fanatical Hindutva," and Courtright chooses to play the victim by writing about it as "Scholarship in the Age of Terror."

    Unless these high priests of academia can substantiate how these articles, which criticize their work, even remotely espouse militancy, the scholars' reaction can only be considered as a deliberate and dishonest distortion to avoid the substantive issues of scholarship that have been raised. Nonetheless, power has the ability to frame discourse. A Washington Post article on this issue follows the line put out by these academicians; it describes the issue primarily in terms of "death threats" and "violence" rather than the quality of scholarship.

    Criticism of crude academic writing on Hinduism is coming from the community because it is not present in the academy. The Christian or Jewish community need not overly concern itself with psychoanalytical fantasies about Moses or Jesus because there is a vast body of scholars within the academy who would take this on. A Courtright-like narrative with far-fetched psychoanalytical interpretations would be marginalized in the study of Jesus or Moses. Not so with Hinduism, where such interpretations form part of the mainstream narratives by "authorities" like Doniger. Those who object are likely to be marginalized instead.

    The balance of power within the academy for the Judeo-Christian traditions is vastly different in the case of Hinduism. Apparently, no one in the academy has even bothered to check the references of Courtright's "well-received" book on Ganesha in the 20 years that it has been out, let alone write a critique. This would be unimaginable in the case of a similar work about Jesus or Moses or even the Prophet Mohammad. And this is why the ideas of Courtright, Kripal, and Doniger can be put forward as mainstream interpretations of Hindu thought, unlike the alleged homoeroticism of Jesus.

    While Doniger et al make exaggerated claims of violence based on ducking a stray egg, the real issue they have been ducking is that of shoddy scholarship. They charge that their critics do not read books, yet it is these academicians who haven't bothered to read their critics. Perhaps they don't need to. It is easier to remain ensconced in an ivory tower and make sure that the airwaves carry only the story of the scholars being "attacked." The alternative would be to engage in dialogue with the community who find their traditions unrecognizably mauled at their hands rather than talking past them, as Marty does, by caricaturing all criticism as "fundamentalist" and "militant." This engagement can only help all those that genuinely care to see the academy as a place for the dissemination of knowledge, rather than of one-sided propaganda.


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