The NYT reviews the latest book by Wendy Doniger, a University of Chicago professor who studies Hinduism:
Though sexual imagery is found throughout Hinduism’s baroque mythology, many groups would like to minimize its importance. They have different concerns: some with purity, some with Hindu power, some with minimizing the influence of “Eurocentric” commentators…
… threatening e-mail messages were sent to Ms. Doniger and her colleagues. And in November 2003, an egg was lobbed at her at the University of London… Scholarship about Hinduism has also come under scrutiny. Books that explore lurid or embarrassing details about deities or saints have been banned. One Western scholar’s Indian researcher was smeared with tar, and the institute in Pune where the scholar had done his research was destroyed. Ms. Doniger said one of her American pupils who was studying Christianity in India had her work disrupted and was being relentlessly followed. [NYT]
What struck me about this story is the degree to which the reviewer absolutely, unquestioningly takes Doniger’s side without acknowledging there might be another point of view. She’s pushed the envelope, to say the least, on sexual, Freudian interpretations of Hindu mythology and reportedly called the Gita ‘a dishonest book’:
Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Hindu saint, has been declared by these scholars as being a sexually-abused homosexual, and it has become “academically established” by Wendy Doniger‘s students that Ramakrishna was a child molester, and had also forced homosexual activities upon Vivekananda… Other conclusions by these well-placed scholars include: Ganesha’s trunk symbolizes a “limp phallus”; his broken tusk is a symbol for the castration-complex of the Hindu male; his large belly is a proof of the Hindu male’s enormous appetite for oral sex. Shiva, is interpreted as a womanizer, who encourages ritual rape, prostitution and murder, and his worship is linked to violence and destruction. [Sulekha]
This is a hairy issue, so let me tease out various threads here. I’m not in favor of right-wing Hinduism; I’m certainly against any form of academic intimidation. And there are, in fact, rich veins of sexuality in Hindu mythology. It’s one of the ways Hinduism feels more organic, less Puritan to me than the fire-and-brimstone self-abnegation of the Bible.
At the same time, critical, nonviolent response (emphasis on the nonviolent) is fair game. It’s very natural for the religious to take offense to what they view as profane (Piss Christ and its brethren). And much of the original institutional foundation behind South Asian departments across the country is suspect; it was sometimes described, in the crudest stereotype, as hippies given slush funds by the Department of Defense to dissect a Soviet-friendly country, a potential enemy, during the Cold War.
Psychosexual analyses of Hindu mythology came very much into vogue in the last couple of decades. These departments’ cozy worlds were shaken up by post-’65 immigration and the subsequent South Asian American generation. It’s never comfortable teaching the ‘other’ to the other. Meanwhile, universities were kicking off fundraising campaigns so well-meaning, wealthy uncles would endow South Asia chairs. A lot of tension and resentment was created across these departments when desi Ph.D.s, who assumed cultural ownership, did not win tenure:
Look at them, know them, burn their faces into your memory — they are the same professors getting tenure, while South Asians teaching South Asian topics are forever passed over for promotion. [me]
In fairness, there may have been genuine scholar supply issues:
… Indian Classics have been virtually banished from India’s higher education – a continuation of the policy on Indian education started by the famous Lord Macaulay over 150 years ago.. While India supplies information technology… and other professionals to the most prestigious organizations of the world… it is unable to supply world-class scholars in the disciplines of its own traditions. [Sulekha]
So not only is there fundamentalist response, there’s also a sense of disenfranchisement over the scholarship of their own religion. It’s not like the ‘was Lincoln gay?’ debate playing out across the pages of liberal mags. It’s as if the religious studies field had decided that Jesus was gay, and those affirming his straightness were denied an academic microphone entirely.
Update: Amardeep suggested getting over words written in the throes of the sexual revolution:
It seems to me that what galls the anti-[Hinduism Studies] 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. [Amardeep]