Thoughts on Hanuman Jayanti Day

Cultures and civilizations rely on material things for the satisfaction of their physical needs. But they are also inspired by ideals, ennobled by ideas, and enhanced by visions and abstract principles for their spiritual sustenance.  So we have majestic names and enriching icons in all traditions.

In the complex canvass of Hindu culture, there is the endearing figure of Hanuman, a hero in the epic Ramayana, a mystical personage who never ceases to evoke love and respect in the hearts of all who are imbued in the essence of Hindu culture.  The devout praise him through pious poetry and beautiful bhajans (devotional music), and pray to him in places of worship.

Few names in the lore command the universal respect that the great Hanuman does, perhaps because he is looked upon as an aspect of Shiva perennially linked to an aspect of Vishnu. His form and name may strike the outsider strange, and a Non-Hindu may be surprised, if not shocked, to see a figure of worship that has the face of a monkey, while a probing scholar, untouched by the spiritual undercurrent in the framework of the faithful, may be tempted to see inner meanings that are opaque to the practicing millions. But to those who are brought up in the culture the many names and images of this greatest of all of Rama’s devotees stand for many a virtue. His simian figure in contrast to Rama’s serene stature, is perhaps meant to  remind us that we humans are so different from the Divine, while  his deeds and demeanor stand for devotion, loyalty, determination, extraordinary power, purity of mind, erudition, clarity of mind, physical and moral integrity consecrated to service of the good, action against evil, and selfless dedication to a righteous cause. Hanuman’s exploits in the saga of Rama reflect all these admirable qualities and more. He is represented with a halo around his head with a crown, a mighty mace in a hand, and often with an open chest where Rama and Sita may be seen.  Sometimes He is pictured with a mountain on a palm.

On this full-moon day in the month of  Chaitra on the Hindu calendar, Northern sectors of the Hindu world remember Hanuman with special affection by celebrating a festival in his name: Hanuman Jayanti. [In the Tamil country one does this on New Moon day in the month of Margazhi.] Every year on this day, to affirm their commitment to the positive potencies that Hanuman represents, the people of the tradition offer prayers and exclaim, “May His thunderbolt strength be victorious!”

Whether we take the Hanuman of the epic literally or contemplate him only to visualize virtues, let us reflect this day on the name that has inspired countless generations of Hindus as a symbol for the qualities displayed in the Saga of Rama. In doing so we not only become part of a cultural continuity in the long thread of time, but also remind ourselves that we too are capable  of some of those noble qualities in our own modest measures. Jai Hanuman!

March 30, 2010

On Rama: The Bhakti Mode

No matter how enriching historical and cultural analyses of the Ramayana may be for those who are inclined to such modes, a significant aspect of Hindu culture is that the major personages in the epic: Rama and Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman, have acquired an exalted and sanctified status in the heart and soul of millions.  So we bow to their icons reverentially in places of worship and  sing devotional bhajans to them. When we listen to Saint Thyagaraja’s moving music dedicated to Rama or to (hari-katha) narrations of the epic, or when we recite with fellow-Hindus Sant Tulasi Das’s Ramcharitramanas,  we are touched in ways that no literal translation or scholarly exposition of the Ramayana can accomplish. In such contexts one is immersed in the bhakti mode where divine representations are the targets not just of respect and prostrations, but of a love that is expressed and experienced in the spiritual realm. This love can be ecstatic. To the bhakta (devotee of any religion):

God is there in the lepton’s heart

In galactic stretches too.

More ancient than the Cosmic start,

Yet, ever fresh and new.

Some prove a God, some disprove,

With logic as their start.

But no one can or ever will

Move God from the faithful’s heart.

Let mockers mock, and scholars say

Whatever they decide.

The God to whom the devout pray,

Isn’t proved, but felt inside.

And so we celebrate Sri Ramanavami as the birthday of Ramachandra as per Valmiki’s text. In this context, Rama not only stands for the perennial values of truth and justice, of respect for parents, and adherence to the given word, but is also, and more importantly, Divinity Incarnate. This year, the celebration happens to be today: March 24, 2010.

On this auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, I would like to convey my greetings to all who are affiliated to the  spiritual plane of the tradition. Let us reflect on the vision of the ideal state of Ramrâjya as conceived by the sage-poets of India.


It has been said in the distant past

When the great Rama ruled,

No disease there was, nor early death,

Nor persons there unschooled.

No man did die in his productive phase,

Leaving behind a wife.

Nor mothers wailed the loss of babes

That died in early life.

No thieves there were, nor cheats, nor crooks;

All did whate’er they should.

All loved and cared for those who lived

In their neighborhood.

Plants and trees did richly grow,

Yielding fruits and grains,

The earth itself enriched the land

With steady and regular rains.

No lightning, thunder or blazing fire

Did bring to hearts alarm;

No gale or hale or quakes that would

Cause to people harm.

With valleys green and flowing streams

All Nature smiled so well,

Men toiled hard and produced goods,

Traders things did sell.

There was law and order, justice fair

In that ancient realm:

That was the kingdom which had the great

Rama at its helm.

We wish and pray for that ideal world

Of which our sage-poets spake.

We need the goodwill of one and all

Such a world again to make.

In the midst of all the hurt and hate

Will it ever come to be?

Not today, but perhaps some day,

The world may Ramrajya see.

March 24, 2010

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