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 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.