Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Much ado about Ganesha: Paul Courtright, Wendy Doniger, and the Hindu Right

[UPDATE from 6/21/04: I have a more current (and thorough) post on this subject here]

First, read this article in the Washington Post.

Internet swarms can do a lot of damage very quickly. Sometimes that damage is to the greater common good, as for instance when bloggers helped to make Trent Lott's comments about Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential run national news. But swarms can also result in irresponsible and unfair attacks against anyone who happens to hold a controversial opinion. This is what has happened to Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtright. (Incidentally, there is a helpful introduction to Doniger's work at this site, including exerpts from some of her books.)

The person who started the swarm (but who has disowned its effects) is a New Jersey-based businessman named Rajiv Malhotra. Malhotra's very long (actually endless) tirade against Hinduism Studies in the United States was posted on Sulekha.com in 2000, and has since led to a campaign against Doniger and Courtright in particular.

Malhotra makes some good points, but he lacks restraint. Because the western scholarship on Hinduism he singles out is markedly psychoanalytic in nature, he feels it is appropriate to "reverse psychoanalyze" the critics in question. He speculates on the sexuality of these scholars in ways that are extremely distasteful at best, and libellous at worst. Here is an example of a particularly ugly passage from Malhotra:

1) Western women, such as the famous professor herself, who are suppressed by the prudish and male chauvinistic myths of the Abrahamic religions, find in their study of Hinduism a way to release their innermost latent vasanas, but they disguise this autobiography as a portrayal of the “other” (in this case superimposing their obsessions upon Hindu deities and saints). For example, here is Wendy acknowledging projecting her psychosis onto her scholarship:[lxxx] “Aldous Huxley once said that an intellectual was someone who had found something more interesting than sex; in Indology, an intellectual need not make that choice at all…. Is sex a euphemism for god? Or is god a euphemism for sex? Or both!” 2) American Lesbian and Gay women's vasanas, also suppressed by Abrahamic condemnation, seek private and public legitimacy, and therefore, interpret Indian texts for this autobiographical purpose. 3) Sexually abused Western women, seeking an outlet for anger, find in the Hindu Devi either a symbol of female violence or a symbol of male oppression -- another cultural superimposition.

Ugh. To Mr. Malhotra: if you disagree with the arguments and methods of these scholars, debate them respectfully. If you feel they are ignorant of the subjects they study, by all means educate them. But leave your speculations about their personal sexuality out of it. And leave off referring to Professor Doniger as "Wendy." This strange tendency of Malhotra's (he keeps referring to "Wendy's Child Syndrome") almost begs us to "reverse psychoanalyze" him, specifically his weird obsession with western female scholars of Hinduism.

But I digress. The only place where I might share some common ground with Malhotra -- though I come to it from a very different set of assumptions -- is my distaste for psychoanlytical religious studies scholarship. What is the real value of Oedipizing Ganesha? Does Freud's Oedipus complex, a mythology devised to describe the psychic structure of bourgeois Europe (with its nuclear family), really apply to India, where families are extended? I'm personally much more interested in religious studies scholarship that looks closely at religion as part of a practice of everyday life, and as integrated into the broader cultural framework of a given society.

That said, I firmly defend Doniger and Courtright's rights to publish their books without fear of harassment. I hope they are able to continue to do their work.

Unfortunately, what Malhotra and company have done to Doniger, Courtright, Caldwell, and others is just something we academics will probably have to get used to -- in this internet age there is no 'ivory tower' to protect our arguments. In an ideal world, this would be for the better, since so many of us hope our work will be read and have an effect on people, and few would admit to enjoying the elitist shelter of the aforementioned tower. But sadly, the internet's power to disseminate information seems to only be generating 5-minute scandals, flame-wars, and snarky, sensationalistic blogs.

UPDATE: See this post by Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels. Also see this at AKMA.

Selected Comments on this Post

Much ado about Ganesha: Paul Courtright, Wendy Doniger, and the Hindu Right

On : 4/15/2004 4:08:55 PM James Turpin (www) said:

I found your site through a series of links from Ryan Overbey's site. Here I go playing Devil's advocate...
I was wondering if you have considered whether Malhotra's use of Wendy's first name may be a deliberate parody of abuses in familiarity by Prof. Doniger and her students? Possibly many things that Prof. Doniger says may offend a practicing Hindu in much the same way that attempting to pronounce the unspeakable name of G-d may offend an Orthodox Jew? In all three cases (calling Prof. Doniger "Wendy", the way Prof. Doniger and her students talk about Hindu deities, and how some Christian sects use the name "YHWH" which offends Orthodox Jews), the central issue is improper familiarity by a member of one cultural group as percieved by a member of another cultural group. In fact, Malhotra's use of "Wendy" may be the least offensive of the three, because Prof. Doniger is not considered a G/god(dess) by anybody (as far as I know).

On : 4/16/2004 10:30:30 AM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Thanks for the comment. In a way I think that what Malhotra thinks he's doing. And I also can see that some Hindus would find *some* of her claims offensive (those who do need to go to the caves at Ajantha and Khajuraho -- and see just how sexualized ancient Hinduism is).

At any rate, two wrongs don't make a right. I just think that academic conventions (last name) and professional respect are of value. As Ophelia Benson has pointed out in Butterflies and Wheels, the use of her first name (he does something similar with the scholar Sarah Caldwell) is patronizing -- there is more than a trace of sexism in it.

On : 4/17/2004 2:57:12 AM Kumar (www) said:

Dr. Singh:

I also think it best --when arguing--to address the other side in a civil manner. So I do agree with you about the propriety of adhering to "...academic conventions [and] professional respect...". Certainly, nothing justifies any attempt to intimidate various scholars.

However, what I find especially striking about Dr. Doniger's attempt to apply psychoanalysis to Hinduism is its manifest failure as an illuminating explanation. Let me elaborate: I think that evalutation of an explanations' worth is (mostly) contrastive. And Dr. Doniger's true rival here is the 'indigenous' Tantric tradition itself. Dr. Doniger has not added much value to that Hindu traditions' explanations.

I realize, of course, that this is merely a statement and not a (proper) argument. But I hope it illustrates that many Hindus who object to such work (and, yes, I am one such) do not offer our offense as reason enough to discard such work. I, for one, think that the quality of the work matters: The shoddiness of her work in this area is what merits scholarly disapproval.

However, the work of Drs. Doniger, Courtwright and others raises an even deeper issue. Such work underlines that religious studies is not a scientific discipline, given that the central term of this discipine--religion--necessarily is a normative concept. Again, not much argument on offer, I know: Let me just say that I think Paul Griffiths, among others, ably shows this to be the case. Furthermore, his recommendation is that religious studies academics ought not to run away from this analysis. We are all theologians in the end, as he's written.

BTW, this is not to say that anyting goes: 'Theologies' can be rationally evaluated and compared to each other. And part of the evaluation will be how well a particular 'theology' accounts for the empirical data. This empirical 'weighing' of various 'theologies' in the religious studies involves the application of rigorous, objective/scientific criteria (defining the field very broadly, I'm thinking of IE linguistics, etc.) .

Given this analysis, I hope that scholars whose work is informed by Hinduism (and who are willing to subject that work to the same standards as those whose work is informed by , say, the 'religion' of psychoanalysis) will also be accorded a substantial platform in the academy.

P.S., I'm not certain why you think the application of psychoanalysis to the work of Western scholars is mistaken: In bad taste ? Probably, yes. But if psychoanalyis is a science, surely it's universally applicable: The texts/lives/motivations of religious studies academics are surely as fair a game as that of the texts/lives/motivations of various Hindus.

On : 4/19/2004 10:07:35 PM Amardeep Singh (www) said:

Kumar, I tend to think psychoanalysis is really more para-science than science proper. Literary critics (like myself), as well as anthropologists and religious studies scholars, tend to pick up a few metaphors or key phrases, and treat them as objective, universal phenomena.

I have more respect for psychotherapeutic practitioners -- but very few of them still rely on Freud or Lacan.

I tend to agree about Tantra, which is for me one of the interesting mysteries in the Hindu tradition. Also, I haven't read Paul Griffiths, but I'll look him up and maybe post more on this soon.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and thanks for readings.

On : 4/20/2004 6:41:14 PM kumar (www) said:

Dr. Singh:

You're quite right that, among others, ".....religious studies scholars, tend to pick up a few metaphors or key phrases, and treat them as objective, universal phenomena." And that is the problem, isn't it?

I'm not suggesting that Drs. Doniger, Courtright et al need to establish Freudianism as a scientific theory before they can apply it in their work. Division of labor in the academy, as elsewhere, is acceptable and efficient.

Rather, scholars wishing to utilize Freudianism--whether literally or metaphorically--ought to explicitly test its usefulness in analyzing a particular text/tradition. Instead, one usually finds
a blithe acceptance of the utility of Freudianism. And that doesn't lead to impressive scholarship.

BTW, if you look up Paul Griffiths' work, make sure you look up the 'right' one. There's another fellow, nearly the same name, but he's a philosopher of science (biology, mostly). Actually, given your interest in Chuck D., you'll enjoy reading him also--he's quite good as well.

Paul J. Griffiths the indologist/buddhologist/xtn theologian has a very interesting article in Jose Cabezon's book on scholasticisms. A more elaborate treatment of that essay is in his "Scholasticism: The Possible Recovery of an Intellectual Practice". Also, his "An apology for apologetics : a study in the logic of interreligious dialogue" is very interesting as well.

Paul E. Griffiths the philosopher has a (relatively) recent collection of his work out..."Agency & Other Essays". Also, with Kim Sterelny, he's written an excellent intro. to the phil. of biology, "Sex and death : an introduction to philosophy of biology."

Both are worth reading.