Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Rhetorical Suggestions for the anti-Hinduism Studies crowd

My first thought this morning was: When will these people stop? (I wrote a small post about the Hinduism Studies controversy two months ago)

But then rather than write another outraged post, I'll merely offer some friendly stylistic suggestions for Rajiv Malhotra, Sankrant Sanu, Vishal Agarwal, etc. I naturally have no credibility on my own, being an English professor and a non-Hindu.

Thus, I am merely trying to help you all get your point across a little better. I have no particular animosity towards you or towards Hinduism; at times you make good points (Sanu finds some pretty wild quotes from Courtright here, and makes a valid contrast between the attitude of Islamicists and that of Hindu Studies people). I know that the Washington Post took Doniger's side. But I should say that you are being dissed by the respectable media not because of racism or because of some big anti-Hindu conspiracy. Rather, you simply don't make your case very well. Here are some tips in response to Sankrant Sanu's latest in Beliefnet:

1. Currency. Try reading a book by Wendy Doniger written after 1980. Try her painstaking translation of selections of the Rg Veda, for instance. And what do you make of her translation [and scholarship] on the Kama Sutra? (And what do you make of her comments on Harry Potter? Ok, just kidding...)

Paul Courtright's book on Ganesha is also quite old. The fact that you find offensive statements mainly in books written 25 years ago weakens your claims about the 'centrality' of this particular pair of scholars to Hinduism studies today.

Or take Jeffrey Kripal's point about his book Kali's Child, which has been one of the books by white American scholars singled out for inaccuracies and distortions. In his response to the controversy on Sulekha, Kripal mentions that he has apologized for the inaccuracies. In this piece, he also defends his (and many other scholars') interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna's homoerotic interests [I haven't read any of Ramakrishna's works, in Bengali or English, and will remain agnostic on this]

But he also mentions that almost no one has ever read or bought his book!

I regret to say that Rajiv gets just about everything wrong about my ideas and translations. If the first requirement of a serious intellectual discussion is to get the other person's ideas and perpectives correct, what the Indian philosophical tradition calls the purva-paksa, then this has never been a serious intellectual discussion. Indeed, Rajiv gets it all so wrong that I am left wondering if he has even ever read the book. I doubt very much that he has. This is a pattern I have seen again and again over the years: lots of offended feelings over a book few have actually read. As I have already pointed out, I know for a fact that very few people have ever read the book, as I know exactly what and where the sales have been, and they have been absolutely miniscule by any trade standards. For example, no more than a hundred copies have ever been sold in India. Repeatedly, then, I am put on trial in almost total ignorance of what I have written.

Hm, 100 copies. And this was debated in the Lok Sahba (Indian Parliament)? Clearly, somebody must stop Jeffrey Kripal! His book is contaminating dozens of minds. Seriously speaking: is Jeff Kripal's work really central to Hinduism studies?

2. Civility. Sanu writes: The website Sulekha.com invited Wendy Doniger to offer a response to one of the early articles that Rajiv Malhotra had written. She refused. My suggestion: Try addressing Doniger and her colleagues civilly. The reason she has thus far refused to engage with Malhotra is that his language has been rude and his tactics underhanded (as Kripal's story shows). Tell Malhotra to hire an editor to weed out all the ad hominem nastiness (I'll volunteer), and then try starting over again.

To Sankrant Sanu's credit, his articles in Sulekha and Beliefnet meet my criteria of respectfulness, though there are lines that I have questions about.

3. Pick important claims, and disregard small ones. This, for instance, is not terribly impressive:

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.

It's hard to get anybody excited about 'contradictions', and it distracts from your main points, which are sometimes good ones. If the omission of trivial criticisms means your essays are going to be a little shorter from now on, I, for one, am not going to complain.

4. Don't try and minimize death threats. Death threats, even over the internet, are a very big problem. They are, in fact, a federal offense. So when you say things like this, I think you destroy your credibility:

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.

Yes, "apparently" they didn't want to allow death threats on their site! They are motivated by a small desire not to be sued, or to be sent to jail. This equivocating looks bad for you, and is anyway irrelevant, since the Hinduism Studies scholars don't run Petition Online.

5. Know your field. This passage is telling:

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.

Wrong! There is an immense amount of psychoanlytic Jewish and Christian studies material out there. Look up Daniel Boyarin, for instance. And they aren't marginal, they're mainstream.

6. Accurately report history. I didn't realize this the last time I posted, but this controversy is older than Malhotra's infamous piece published on Sulekha.com in 2000. There were stirrings of it on various email lists in the late 1990s.

But closer inspection of who has been participating in these discussions reveals that Hinduism Studies has not united as a group against the 'outsiders'. Malhotra himself participated formally in at least one panel at the American Academy of Religion in 2000. You can't get more institutionalized than that!

(Another 'insider' resource is this one, published by Hinduism studies scholars as Washington University in St. Louis. Clearly that Religion department, at least, is taking this debate very seriously.)

7. Finally, Don't be so prudish. It seems to me that what galls the anti-HS crowd the most is the seeming obsession with sex and sexuality amongst academics in the 1970s. Indeed, the scholars seemed to discover things about Ganesha, Vishnu, Kali, etc. that I find to be a little, er, imaginative. But keep in mind that that was the 1970s -- today the relish for saying the word 'phallus' every 10 seconds is diminished. Today's academics are like Madonna; they are over the whole sex thing now.

Even so, don't sound as if you are trying to put a chastity belt around the Hindu tradition (see point 9 in Patrick Colm Hogan's Ten Reasons Why Anyone Who Cares About Hinduism Should Be Grateful to Wendy Doniger). There is a considerable amount of sexuality in the Ramayana, for instance, and while it is necessary to provide context and remain sensitive, this material can and should be studied and analyzed. Why not contribute your own analyses of this material?


Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

I disagree (mostly) with your post, much to your surprise, I'm sure ;) Out of sheer laziness, I'll style my response along the lines of your posting. In turn then,

1. Currency: You understate the influence of the academic 'guru-shishya' parampara. Dr. Doniger (a stand-in for Indologists, generally, in my comment)exercises her influence through both books and the students she's trained. And her students do tend to carry on her research agenda. As important, however, is the pedagogical influence of such
scholarship--whatever its vintage.

As for books you cite by Dr. Doniger, I believe her translations are rather pedestrian and strewn with a number of errors. In the latter assessment, I'm joined by no less an authority than Dr. Michael Witzel (Sanskrit Prof. at Harvard, not exactly a raging Hindutvavadin).

That said, Dr. Doniger's best work (likely to be still read 50 or 60 years from now) lies in her comparative work on Greek and Indian 'mythology'. It's a pity she hasn't dug even deeper here. All of us would benefit from that sort of work.

Jeffrey Kripal's comment about his book sales in India is beside the point. The relevant question is whether his critics have read his book. And it's quite clear that a number of them have done just that, e.g., Swami Tyagnanada, Srinivas Tilak, Balagangadhara, etc. Tyagananda, in particular, is a meticulous and devastating critic of many of Kripal's central theses.

2 & 3 Civility, Important Claims: I couldn't agree more about the need for a civil tone. But that's a responsbility of both sides in a debate, one which too many on both sides have not decided to shoulder. Sanu's lapses from civility are relatively rare.

His critique of Dr. Doniger's Encarta essay on Hinduism is well-done. The claims you judge to be minor in Sanu's essay are, well, not minor to establishing that Doniger's take on Hinduism is rather adversarial. It's precisely such 'minor' stylistic tics in Doniger's essay which help to substantiate Sanu's claim.

4. Death threats: Always wrong, of course, and never to be condoned! But I think you may have mistaken a non-native English speaker's inelegance for equivocation.

5. Know your field: Yes, indeed. But you miss the central claim of those who find many of Dr. Doniger's books to be deeply mistaken. It's true that there are many far-fetched interpretations of, and attacks on, Xtnty, Judaism etc. But there are equally many works on these religions by their adherents. And I speak of academic scholars, not evangelists.

Hindus simply don't have that sort of representation in the academic marketplace. Given that much academic work in this area is 'opinio' (in the old, epistemic sense), all views deserve to be heard.

The reasons for this are diverse, of course. Partly, it's to do with church-state separation in this country. Partly, of course, with the desire of many religionists to remake their discipline as a 'neutral/objective' science (an incoherent desire, I think;more on that later, perhaps). Partly, with the dearth of committed Hindus willing to enter this field. But in some scholars, I would judge that a certain disdain for Hinduism also plays a part.

6. Accurately report history: It's true that there has been some willingess to listen and debate. But not enough, I would judge. And what little change has happened is due mostly to the Malhotra's and Sanu's.

7. Prudishness: Yes, of course, study and comment on matters sexual in the various Indic traditions. But part of that will, necessarily, involve critquing extant takes on such matters.

Having written all this, I can only say that I agree with you on the importance of entering the scholarly arena. We Hindus must emulate Kumarila Bhat's response to the Buddhist challenge.


12:38 AM  
Kumar said...

P.S., Just to make it perfectly clear, I'm praising Kumarila's scholarly response to Buddhist philosophers, among other anti-Vedic schools. I am not referring to Kumarila's alleged anti-Buddhist actions.


12:42 AM  
Amardeep said...

Thanks Kumar. After thinking it over, I think I'll just let your comment stand. I think readers will have to go through this debate point by point, and then decide for themselves.

It's clear that more people of South Asian descent in the field would be a help (we're starting to see that already), though it may not really solve the inside/outside academia issue. Nor is it likely to lessen the bitterness. For instance, there are numerous turban-wearing Sardars in Sikh Studies, and they are widely attacked by Sikhs from outside academia anytime their work aims to make an 'original' (meaning, non-canonical) claim. The biggest negative campaigns have been directed against Pashaura Singh (Michigan), Harjit Oberoi (Toronto), and Gurinder Singh Mann at UCSB.

I expect that this pattern will be repeated in Hinduism studies as well in the years to come. These arguments are not resolved yet.

1:30 PM  
Kumar said...

Dr. Singh:

Yes, your suggestion that the involvement of more Hindus in the field won't end the emic/etic controversy is on-target. I've probably not been clear enough, but I don't mean to suggest that only or mostly Hindus ought to be in Hindusim-studies.

All shades of opinion ought to be allowed to contend in the academic marketplace. Currently, the field has a surfeit of scholars who 'think about Hindusim', but lacks scholars who 'think with Hindusim' [unoriginal phrasing, I know, but it's apt].

Scholars of any ethnicity, opinion, religion can 'think with Hinduism', btw. Good current examples would be Paul Griffiths (who 'thinks with Buddhism'], the Jesuit scholar Francis Clooney ('Theology After Vedanta', etc.) and, yes, even Paul Courtright on occasion (who used a broadly Hindu lens in an essay-length anaylsis of Catholic ritual).

The former two are committed Christians, who wish to utilize Hindu insights to enrich their Christian faith. While I don't share their faith, or their goal, I can only applaud such scholarly work. Of course, I would expect that the most dedicated practicioners of such an approach would be committed Hindus.

About the Sikh scholars you mention: I've profited from their work, especially Harjot Oberois'.


7:32 PM  
Refractor said...

I entirely agree with Dr. Singh that the debate has to be logical and nasty. A few thoughts on Hinduism are available on

9:08 AM  
Anonymous said...

Dr Singh,
I have followed your blog with interest for a long time now (because of my interest in postcolonial studies). I was surprised when i found the few entries about the Kripal, Courtright & Doniger controversies. My 'other' major is Religious Studies, and I'm working on these topics for my senior seminar thesis... so I just wanted to share a few of my thoughts on the topic:

1. In your first post, you offer the paintings at Ajanta as evidence of "how sexualized ancient Hinduism is": This, i believe, is factually inaccurate. The Ajanta (& Ellora) caves were primarily Buddhist & Jain constructions. Therefore, the iconography cannot be said to represent Hindu tradition.

2. While I haven't read Dr. Doniger's more controversial works, I am familiar with Courtright & Kripal's. Courtright's "Ganesa" is an interesting case to study as it appears that almost all of its "objectionable material" can be collected into about three pages, and span just three topics:
a) Psychoanalysing Ganesa's beheading. Courtright spends two chapters introducing the indeterminacy involved in the legend of Ganesa's origins, before abruptly suggesting that Ganesa's "flaccid trunk" is a "caricature" of the siva-linga (with little evidence to back his claims), and quickly moving into an Oedipal reading of Ganesa's mythology, stopping briefly to compare Ganesa to eunuchs!
b) The issue of the tusk. Courtright seems to examine a couple of myths that invite psychoanalytical reading, but (oddly) ignores the most popular legend of the tusk: that Ganesa broke it off as he transcribed the Mahabharata because his writing utensil broke.
c) Courtright's suggestion that Ganesa Chathurthi is a time of great communal unrest and that the maharashtra & mumbai police are regularly frightened of the festival. Having lived in Pune & Aurangabad for several years myself, I cannot but question Courtright's sources for this claim.
3. Kripal: This is the principal topic for my thesis, so I have a larger amount of information on this issue. Having read Kripal's several editions (dissertation, 1st edition, 2nd edition), I cannot but question his motives for writing the book. It seems to me that he went out of his way to deceive his audience about the evidence that he offers. If you read his book, just before the index, there is a short epilogue where he informs the reader about the nature of the Kathamrita, and about how the book is essentially formed by extrapolation from the 'skeletal day notes' of M. Of course, during the entire course of the text, Kripal continually suppresses this fact, and pretends as if the words are Ramakrishna's himself. This, coupled with almost hundreds of translation errors (which I would argue are intentional) are quite effective in misleading a casual reader. Kripal claims himself a "textualist" working on a Bengali text, and yet readily admits (on his website) that his knowledge of Bengali is severely limited & dictionary dependent. Yet, he doesn't seem to shy away from translating words and phrases in a manner that wont show up in any dictionary: he claims that his translation is 'closer to the original idea', and that he has the -get this- "native tantric lens". The question of why Kripal would consider himself a native tantric is obviously unanswered.
Tyagananda's essay: (http://www.infinityfoundation.com/ECITkalichildframeset.htm) contains a good articulation (and listing) of Kripal's translation problems, though I feel that the Swami overlooked the fundamental problem with Kripal's work: How can you psychoanalyze an individual through a biography that is written by someone else?
I think it would be interesting to do a Lacanian psychoanalysis of Kripal's work to speculate on his motives. It's possible that he only displaces his own homoerotic & psychomystical tendencies (even though he, like Ramakrishna, is a married man), but of course, there would be no way to prove this.

~abhi chaudhuri

11:52 PM  
Uttishtha Bharata said...

I think we can safely ignore the responses of Rajiv and such. Don't know if you had a chance to read Prof Balagangadhara's replies, if not, here are some quick pointers:

What not to do?

India and her traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal

7:53 AM  
Anonymous said...

and an other open letter to Jeffrey Kripal

1:47 AM  
Anonymous said...

and an other open letter by Balagangadhara to Jeffrey Kripal


1:49 AM  

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