Invading the sacred: An analysis of Hinduism Studies in America Edited by Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas, Aditi Banerjee


(A Review)

Roots of the book

Like the multiplicity of the authors who have contributed to this volume, many factors have converged to create this book. These include a growing dissatisfaction with Western images of the non-West, the application of inappropriate methodology for understanding traditional worldviews, and the continued hegemony of the West even in matters that don’t concern it, such as what Hindus think about their puranas. Already in the first decades of the twentieth century, many Indian thinkers declared that Indic culture cannot be subjected to, much less analyzed through, the blurred lens of Western rationality. Indeed it may be said more generally that scientific probing and cold rationality can never grasp the full significance of any living tradition.
But the primary catalyst for this book is Rajiv Malhotra, thinker, scholar, idealist, and activist, besides having been a highly successful entrepreneur more than a decade ago. He is a thinker in that he reflects deeply on important issues, a scholar in that he is widely read in history and current cultural debates, an idealist in wanting to see a world where all cultures and civilizations receive equal and fair treatment; and an activist in that he has been participating in conferences, organizing meetings, giving lectures, writing provocative essays, and funding projects, all with one goal in mind: To correct what many people perceive as distortions and misrepresentations of the Hindu world and of Indic traditions in North America. In a single decade he has achieved more in this endeavor than many authors who are read and appreciated by countless people.

The book’s relevance and thesis

No matter how one reacts to it – and it is bound to touch large numbers of people, lay and scholarly – this book is likely to become a landmark in the history of India-related studies. It dissects a number of cases in which scholarly commentaries on aspects of Hindu thought, lore, and religion have been incorrect and offensive. It focuses primarily on three specific authors, and it argues that their callous misrepresentations are systemic to Eurocentric commentaries on other cultures.
The book is a strong and considered response to Western Freudian scholarship on Hinduism, which, the authors contend, has missed the mark altogether. Essentially the thesis is this: Obsessed by the Freudian approach to life and literature, some American scholars have transformed Puranic mythopoesie into pure pornography, examined a highly revered spiritual personage’s life in homo-erotic terms, and desecrated the lofty vision of a time-honored Hindu deity by reducing it to sexual allegory.
Aside from deliberately sinister analyses of scriptures, saints and symbols, the journalistic portrayal of Indic culture has generally been in terms of cows and castes, superstitions and satis, daughters-in-law and dowries, monkeys and masalas. A growing number of English-reading Hindus in the West are not willing to tolerate such selective sketches of a dynamic civilization to which they are heirs. Such writings have pushed many Hindus in America beyond what Eric Sharpe called the response threshold. Put differently, that’s when the target group says, “Enough is enough!”
The chapters in the book are by different authors, and most of them are inspired by the extensive writings of Rajiv Malhotra. They examine the questionable, and to Hindus also objectionable, theses based on gross psychoanalytic interpretations. The chapters are replete with examples of unwarranted extrapolations, distorted interpretations, and ridiculous caricatures. Such writings may be okay for Western specialists who examine Hinduism like entomologists dissecting bees and grasshoppers. But they are confusing and misleading, dangerous and distorted.

New framework and clumsy translations

With the awakening that has come about after European de-colonization of the world, non-Western intellectuals have begun to challenge Western scholars on their own terms. They are no longer constrained by the subservient posture which a hundred years of British colonialism had inflicted on the Hindu psyche. Yet, the historical rancor against the West inevitably lingers on in the pages of this book.
Viewed as grades from professors for reports submitted by students, the appraisals given to the Western scholars who are probed in this book are pretty low. Considered as serious reactions of thoughtful people of the tradition, the chapters take on a punishing tone. The expertise or lack thereof in Sanskrit of Wendy Doniger, a scholar who has published extensively on the Vedas and the Puranas, is ridiculed with some devastating quotes from a leading Harvard authority on Sanskrit. One of these is to the effect that an erudite Sanskritist could “count 43 instances (in a hymn of 18 stanzas translated by Doniger) which are wrong or where others would easily disagree.”
Jeffrey Kripal, author of the now notorious Kali’s Child that received an award from the American Academy of Religion, is castigated for (among other things) his audacity to translate texts from Bengali, a language he had by no means mastered, in order to use them for his psychoanalytic evaluation of Sri Ramakrishna. We read of him (as judged by a renowned professor of psychology in Kolkata) that his “understanding of a mystic such as Ramakrishna is … a mishmash of psychoanalytic apples and oranges…”
Paul Courtright, a tenured professor of Religion at Emory University, is severely taken to task not only for his callous indifference to millions of Hindus in publishing his obscene doctoral dissertation (which contains numerous Sanskrit errors) on the First God of Hindus, but also for his repeated misconstruing of the puranas on which much of his work on Ganesha is based. Referring Courtright’s libidinous interpretation of the staff used in the upanayanam ceremony, the authors write, “One would normally expect such interpretations from juveniles who have watched too many Hollywood movies. Not from an academic in an ‘award winning’ book.”
It may be unfortunate that the footnoted writings of some reputed scholars who have dedicated their professional careers to what they thought was a serious study of Hinduism have been mercilessly downgraded by scholars from within the Hindu tradition, but this was unavoidable. Sooner or later it had to come.
It must be emphasized that though here and there broad generalizations are made about Western views on Indian culture, this book is essentially about scholarly Freudian fantasies in the Hindu context. It details the history of these publications and the reactions of Hindus, as also the way American academia in this field handled those reactions. This was either by ignoring them or by ad hominem attacks on their critics. The broader theme of Eurocentrism is not of central concern here, though there are hints that the books cited represent the intrinsic urge of the West to look down upon the non-West. Indeed, that could well be the subject matter of another book.

Multiplicity of views among Hindus

I applaud this work for the thorough, systematic, and incisive critiques it has launched from Hindu perspectives on writings by people who have no empathy for the tradition about which they write profusely, basing themselves on book knowledge, a few field trips, and anthropological participation in Hindu festivities. But it should also be mentioned that not all Hindus share the views expressed in this volume. There are Hindu academics, both in India and abroad, who look upon some of these matters not very differently from how some Western scholars do. Such Hindu scholars are also mentioned in the book. What this means is that there are vigorous intra-cultural debates on these issues, as there should be in any dynamic civilization. Unfortunately, those who speak for the tradition are sometimes caricatured as mindless fundamentalists wearing trousers instead of saffron robes, and skeptical non-traditionalists are sometimes looked upon as unwitting agents of the colonizers, pathetic victims of Thomas Babington Macaulay, by their respective ideological adversaries.
In any case, it is commendable that traditional Hindus by and large have not resorted to threats or violent behavior in their anger and frustration on reading some of the passages in the works analyzed here.

Possible impacts

This book could have three kinds of impact: From now on, many scholars, Hindu and non-Hindu, may become extremely cautious about what they publish on traditional Hindu themes. This could be an antidote to irresponsible commentaries. Another effect of the book could be that in the future there may be a decreasing number of non-Hindus who choose to pursue Hindu studies as a life-long commitment, because they may see this to be a rather risky profession. This may or may not be a loss to Hindu scholarship. Or thirdly, the whole field may be influenced in positive ways if outsiders take seriously the insights and perspectives that insiders provide.
Given that throughout the book there is little of anything positive in Western scholarship and attitudes, I am somewhat concerned that those unfamiliar with the openness of Western societies and the positive contributions of Western science and enlightenment, and are legitimately ill-disposed towards America at the present time for various other reasons might get the impression that every American harbors Hinduphobia, and that all American scholars are working in cahoots to denigrate Hinduism and Hindu culture. I am not persuaded that this is the case.
Also, as a Hindu American I am as much concerned about the demonization of all Americans as of all Hindus. There is potential for such an impression because while the book rightly exposes many intolerable aspects of Hindu studies in the U.S., it does not explicitly mention that there are also scholars in the United States who have genuine regard and respect for Hindu culture, religion, and civilization. [In fact, some of them have contributed to this book.] Some of them have embraced Hinduism themselves. Others are secular scholars who speak and write just as harshly about Christ and the Virgin Mary. It is also true that a Hindu woman was recently elected as President of the American Academy of Religion, Hindu scholars teach Hindu philosophy in American universities, one of them is Head of the Department of Religion in a Christian College in America, American universities host conferences on Hindu philosophy and Vedanta. Many schools in America invite local Hindus to come and speak to their students about Hinduism, its worldviews, festivals, etc. There is a growing number of Interfaith Forums in the country where Hindus play important roles. Recently Hindu prayers were introduced in the American Senate.
There is no question but that courses on Hinduism taught in the United States could and should be vastly improved. This book is certain to contribute to that need. But it is also a fact that there are not many good textbooks for such courses written by competent Hindu scholars.

A note on the writing

Aside from the scholarly ammunition with which the fortress is stormed, every chapter in the book is written in exceptionally good English. The contents are cogently presented without being pedantic, the thesis is intelligently argued without being offensive, the style is clear without being simplistic, and the language is elegant without being pompous. There are no awkward phrases or vernacularisms in the texts. English has certainly become yet another Indian language.

Concluding thoughts

This is, as I have noted earlier, undoubtedly an informative and provocative book, and it deserves to be read by all who are intellectually or emotionally affiliated to Hinduism. I hope that Western scholars will take due notice of it and don’t brush it off as the angry outburst of emotionally driven Hindus. It would be good if Indian scholars who may disagree with the contents or perspectives of the book also engage in healthy discussions on its basic thesis. This publication may be taken as an opportunity to enter into mutually respectful and productive dialogues and debates, which can only serve the greater cause of Hindu culture at this important juncture in our history.
Perhaps the book would have made an even greater contribution if it had also offered a concluding chapter on ways by which the understanding of Hinduism could be enhanced, and the quality of Hindu scholarship could be elevated both in the West and in India. The issues relating to the portrayal of Hinduism and the nature of Western scholarship on Hinduism will be gaining in importance in the coming years. All parties will be losers if the current state of inimical tension is allowed to fester and persist for long, and the diverging perspectives between insiders and outsiders is looked upon by both groups as a classic conflict between devas and asuras.
My hope is that all the dust of divisive disagreements will settle down some day, and then scholars will write with empathy and respect for their subject, be critical when necessary without being biased or prejudiced, and will be honored and judged, not on the basis of their ethnicity or religious background, nationality or popular appeal, but for the significance, value, and validity of what they write. This book may well be the first step towards that goal.
V. V. Raman

July 7, 2007

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