Who gets the microphone?

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]

21 thoughts on “Who gets the microphone?

  1. Doniger’s interpretation of Hinduism was not shared by all academics at the University of Chicago. In fact, it’s notable to see how academics like Dipesh Chakrabarty (a tenured desi professor) deal with the problems of foundational theory in a non-Western cultural context (see Provincializing Europe for further elaboration). We can’t ignore the fact that many western theories, including psychoanalysis, may inform how we analyze a historical artifact. At the same time, we can also come to a far more rational, mindful conclusion on how to use these terms without being dishonest to the original cultural context. Even in my own work, I’m very careful with the term “gaze,” noting that though its antecedents hail from psychoanalysis, I intend to use for very different purposes in my overall analysis.

    So, bottom line: the microphone is in our hands, but we’re espousing an entirely new sound.

  2. This is a very interesting topic. Although I am an Indian, I am not a Hindu and cannot profess but a cursory knowledge on the religion.

    However, there are some thorny issues in your post. First of all, I am not going to side w/ any extremely obtuse or exceedingly liberal/pyschosexual interpertation of any classical work as completely genuine because such an interpretation is usually out of the original context of the text and especially because most such conclusions lie in the vaguest or ‘grasping at straws’ misinterpretations of sources.

    However, it seems that in your article you seem to advocate a refutal of such interpretations while at the same time acknowleding a lack of Indians supplying such refutation. While this lack of response may be due to both a lack of western universities denying South Asian professors tenure as well as a lack of Indian supply, I can’t help but think this response is reactionary and visceral. I especially enjoyed your line, “It’s never comfortable teaching the ‘other’ to the other” for simply that stick-it-to-the-man, fight the power, sort of feeling. In retrospect, this sort of knee-jerk defensiveness is to me narrow minded especially in academia, including the such reactions to Piss Christ. IMO, religions need not be treated w/ reverence within college walls or art museums.

    Secondly, it seems Indians on some level want to tidy up their traditions/religions to meet European puritanical expectations. ‘Lets get rid of the sex, references to homosexuality, and any other topics unseemly to conservative western sensibilities (which i guess now have become universal sensibilities). It intrigues me to find out what effects colonialism had on Indian philosophical,cultural, and political norms. Have we become more conservative or liberal as a result. Im sure the answer varies on different topics greatly.

    Ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative interpretations both need to be minimized. But in universities, I agree with you that there should be room for all sorts of opinions and its likely a Hindu-centric view is underrepresented. However, I also think in any academic context, critiques of anything and everything should freely be expressed and ideas should stand on their merit. Popularity or trendiness of certain ideas do not neccesarily make them valid, be they extremely off-the-wall liberal or extremely apolgistic conservative ideas.

    -”It’s as if the religious studies field had decided that Jesus was gay” The religious studies field is not monolithic as you imply, at least I don’t think it is. The religious studies people do not get together and conspire to distort the Hindu religion as a whole. But in all fairness, fighting for a diversity of opinion is noble if the cause of said uniformity is due to something that is external to the merits of the ideas themselves, as in not hiring Indian professors due to discrimination.

    apologies for this excessively long comment/if i misinterpreted your post

  3. Manish says: “I’m not in favor of right-wing Hinduism; I’m certainly against any form of academic intimidation.”

    Just to put a post about faulty scholarship of Doniger, Manish has to be so apologetic … says a lot !!! – Doniger is the tenure track faculty spewing out the garbage and has the Mic. Rajiv Malhotra is the outsider. Who is intimidating who here …!!! – The thing that Jon Stewart said is so true …’Just throw an accusation (such as right-wing Hindu) and then claim that the truth is somewhere in between” Jon Stewart said it in different context but it applies.

  4. No one is accusing anyone of being a right-wing Hindu, no one is asking you to be apologetic, and in the case of academic intimidation, I agree Doniger/Europeans have the privelege of the mic, and agree that Hindu voices are underepresented; however, just by being the outsider, Rajiv Maholtra, or desis, or you for that matter, do not qualify for the mask of victimhood caused by ‘intimidation’, i mean what intimidation is Maholtra facing, really?…all I am saying is that Doniger and Maholtra have the right to express their views. Let the chips fall where they may. You may say this New York Times article is biased and I will freely agree, but you need to realize it takes place within the context of a Western culture and will have Western biases; what did you expect? thats not intimidation, that’s a fact you have to face and counter with your own ideas, like Mr. Maholtra chose to do. However, if the goal is to acheive equal footing in the universities, you need to voice this on their turf, in the Western academic system, not just on a website that caters to Indians, Hindus, or any particular non-Western group. Biases from both sides are tinging this argument immensely.

  5. Malhotra’s screeds are badly-written, badly-reasoned, and extremely ad hominem in nature. When he isn’t playing the victim card, he’s aggressively bullying his opponents. He’s like that person you meet at a party who won’t shut up, and then looks hurt when you turn to talk to someone else.

    His attacks on Jeffrey Kripal are especially distasteful.

    If someone attacked me that way I would refuse to respond. It is not a matter of university credentials vs. “free for all” South Asian websites like Sulekha. It is a matter of common civility — you don’t spit on someone and then expect them to have a chat over dinner with you.

    Though I’m not particularly enthusiastic about Doniger’s pre-1980 work (and I’ve actually read a couple of her books!), I support her decision not to deal with him.

    As for why the NYT is taking her side over his, I’m not surprised. But did you notice how little attention the reviewer paid to the contents of her new book? That’s a kind of comment in itself…

  6. Malhotra’s screeds are badly-written, badly-reasoned, and extremely ad hominem in nature.

    Thanks, I know little about Malhotra per se. Curious what you think about the substance of his point (speaking of ad hominem ;) )

  7. Yes, Malhotra was a little too personal sometimes, but the overall thrust of his argument is fairly accurate. I haven’t read anyone coming up with a convincing rebuttal of what he says – all I hear are “He is personal” , and some generic “his articles are badly thought out”.

    By the way, that was a clever pitch for the book – Doniger couldn’t have written it better herself. “I am the person that pissed Hindus off. They send me threats. They throw eggs at me. So buy my next book.” Funny how the “photo on the jacket” is such a great example of Doniger’s “playfulness.” How naïve of me to think it was probably vanity.

  8. I wish scholars would look elsewhere to get their sex. It is tempting- and delightfully easy- to Harelquinize religion texts because everything else has been Harlequinized already. Ofcourse the right to free speech and footnotes is good. But noone with such outrageous views on mainstream religion would get tenure at a top US school and other forms of intellectual legitimacy.

  9. Manish, it depends on what his point is — it changes from place to place in his various articles. (One of the weaknesses)

    1. Sometimes his point is, “these western scholars see too much sex in the Hindu tradition.” Here it is pretty easy to show that he is wrong, and one can question his prudism. Doniger and others provide a pretty massive array of evidence from a large number of sources, including some ‘hard’, archeological ones. The various strands of Hinduism never had the kind of puritanical whitewashing of sex that Protestant Christian culture experienced. That hyper-repressed Victorian ethos that we know so well (i.e., which leads to the censoring of kissing) is really a modern invention.

    Granted, sex isn’t everything. There are other aspects that are very important in the tradition that have little to do with it. And devout Hindus may wish to ignore those aspects. But scholars need to be free to look at things honestly and openly.

    Malhotra is also shocked and horrified that Jeffrey Kripal finds biographical evidence that Sri Ramakrishna might have had some homoerotic interests. I believe his aggressive resistance to Kripal comes from homophobia. He goes so far as to accuse Kripal of himself being a homosexual, which is pretty nasty. (Malhotra’s resistance to Doniger is, needless to say, liberally sprinkled with sexism.)

    1. Malhotra sometimes makes the argument broader, effectively, “these western scholars simply don’t know the tradition.” Here he is attacking them as a whole, in large part because they are white, and located in the west. Ignorance is easy to allege, but hard to prove, and Malhotra’s own point that they are part of an Orientalist tradition argues otherwise.

    Doniger’s books repeatedly refer to Sanskrit texts that she translates herself. She has also done a scholarly translation of the Rg-Veda, which is pretty impressive. Her knowledge is an accumulation of 40+ years of serious research and teaching. I respect that experience.

    1. Third, sometimes Malhotra’s point is merely that psychoanalysis is a questionable method for analyzing religion. Here I am more sympathetic; I myself don’t know what the point of seeing Oedipus in Ganesha might be. Though I would note that the kind of crude psychoanalytic generalizations that Malhotra and others find so offensive (indeed, all of his quotes) are from scholarship that is 25-30 years old. Doniger’s more recent works, which are both more influential and more numerous than the earlier ones, have a more moderate, restrained tone. She is really more of a warm-and-friendly multiculturalist-comparatist these days. Constructing her as the Enemy is a very unfortunate example of straw man-ism.

    There are bigger fish to fry. I’d be curious to know what Malhotra has to say about the economist Niall Ferguson; his book “Empire” argues that the British Empire was good for India.

    I wrote on this topic a couple of times last year. One sample post might be this one. There I am responding to what I feel is a more sensible, coherent critique of Hinduism studies, by Sankrant Sanu.

  10. Amardeep wrote “Jeffrey Kripal finds biographical evidence that Sri Ramakrishna might have had some homoerotic interests. I believe his aggressive resistance to Kripal comes from homophobia. He goes so far as to accuse Kripal of himself being a homosexual, which is pretty nasty. (Malhotra’s resistance to Doniger is, needless to say, liberally sprinkled with sexism.)”

    So I guess the work of Freud is absolutely flawless. It can be applied anywhere (only by the people who have “authority” though) and It can never be wrong. I think they should change the words of Torah for the work of Freud. or Bible also. … You know flawless can be a word of God only :-) )

  11. Amardeep wrote “There are bigger fish to fry. I’d be curious to know what Malhotra has to say about the economist Niall Ferguson; his book “Empire” argues that the British Empire was good for India.”

    See what happens when racist bigots disguised as scholar (read Ferguson) get a big Microphone… He gets a book deal and is discussing that on C-Span.

  12. “I think they should change the words of Torah for the work of Freud. or Bible also”

    If you’ve been in any American university’s theology department you would realize that there are innumerous phycological, sexual, Freudian interpretations of Biblical literature, both the Torah and New Testament (many more than those describing Hinduism). This is what goes on in in Western academia. Freud is by no means flawless, but his ideas have had a enormous influence on Western thought. Please stop crying racism.

  13. Dr. Singh:

    It’s certainly true that sexuality is explicitly (& self-consciously) present in many Hindu traditions. In some Hindu traditions it’s of course very much front-and-center. In others, it’s ignored or downplayed. However, the mere presence of sexuality doesn’t underwrite Freudian interpretations of Hindu traditions.

    It’s precisely this ‘move’ which Doniger et al. leave unargued. They simply assume the truth, and hence universal applicability, of Freudianism. Mr. Rothstein makes the same mistake in his review.

    I simply don’t find it convincing. That ought not to make me into an evil Hindoo fundie, but that’s the brush some use to tar everyone who opposes this line of argument!


  14. Sure, criticizing a professor may put you in good stead with hippies as speaking truth to power, but I’d say death threats are a bit more intimidating than being on faculty in chicago.

    That said — Doniger’s a fool. (From what I hear from her students, she’s pretty wretched as a human being as well, but I’ve never met her, so I’ll have to leave the verdict on that to others.) Time and time again I have to tell people, no, the Kama Sutra is not exactly the central divine scripture of Hinduism. The response generally is, “but I heard Wendy Doniger say it is, and she’s not a right-wing Christian, and she likes Hinduism, so she’s not out to smear it, so she tells it like it really is and it’s all about sex so get me some of that!” Aargh.

  15. Joe Alexander wrote “This is what goes on in in Western academia. Freud is by no means flawless, but his ideas have had a enormous influence on Western thought. Please stop crying racism.”

    On one hand you say that Freud is by no means flawless and than you say this is what goes on in Western academia. Well is it correct or not !!! I am of the belief that you cant judge everything by Freudian principles as opposed to you who wish to accept whatever is given (although you disagree) And if I will call Niall Ferguson a racist not one time but a million and on his face (if I get the opportunity). Have you read his book ? Or catch his interview on C-span?

  16. The thing that concerned me most was the alleged mistranslations of which Malhotra accuses Kripal. I have done some translation work myself, and it is a very difficult task not to project your own personal feelings and beliefs onto the subject in your translation. Of course, you can’t separate yourself from your own biases, but it is always best to check with various sources before translating ‘loaded’ words or phrases.

    That said, I think that Kripal and Doniger have their own part to play in South Asian studies, but that part is that of the ‘outsider looking in’ and therefore cannot always be conclusive of what something means in cultural context. It would be arrogance to affirm that their position is the only acceptable one and use academic intimidation to silence opposing views, especially if those opposing views come from a perspective within the Hindu tradition. That was the kind of scholarship that was practiced during the colonial era – imposing Western values as the ‘yardstick’ by which to measure other cultures, and ignoring what people who have lived within those cultures have to say about it. It has no place in the 21st century. An outside perspective is fine (it would be my perspective too) but caution must be taken to say “I study this from the point of view of a Western scholar” and to realize that those who experience it from an “inside” perspective will have different interpretations – scholarly as well as religious.

    There is a certain elitism found in university faculty, and it’s easy to center around a charismatic scholar while snubbing those who challenge her or his views. Academics should have room for many perspectives, not just the most popular one. That’s the whole point.

  17. Sorry if my comment looked like it was replying to your assertation that Niall Ferguson is racist. I wasn not. However, I was referring to your quote about why Freudian interpretations aren’t applied to Judeo-Christian texts and only Hinduism. I was refuting that implicit allegation of racism. It is not true, so therefore someone who makes a Freudian interpretation of Hindu texts is not singling out Hindus as you falsely claim. Freudian interpretation of texts have been happening and will continue to happen to all sorts of texts. You are correct, I do have a certain affinity to certain elements of Freud, but so what, we can agree to disagree on that. However, you pulling out the race card on those who analyze religious texts through a Freudian lens is BS, RC.

  18. Joe, I was referring to Ferguson as being bigotted and that is a completely seperate issue from the topic of Freudian principals and its application to Hindu religious motifs. I think English not being my first language is to blame for part of the confusions.

  19. I’m only cursorily familiar with the broader topic being discussed so I won’t pretend to know about the specifics, but I’m curious about the dynamic being played out here. From what folks have been saying, it sounds like the actual intellectual debate about Freudian interpretations of Hindu traditions gets lost because of the hyperpoliticization of the issue around sex (and I’d argue the Hindu fundamentalists initiate the latter). Which is a shame.

  20. Why do we have western indologists always bashing/bringing a shame on indian culture..witzel, wendys..next in line we probably will have kfc and mcdonalds.

    The europeans are so open minded that they want the indians to be as open minded as they are..viz accept the theories of wendy et al…if these europeans are really open minded, why dont they elect a jew to the vatican or a black man to be the king of england?

    Everyone knows the promiscuity & homosexual orientation of the christian priests…there has been a plethora of lawsuits on the boston diocese…doesnt it show that the christian priests are gay?

    Can we draw a conclusion from the behaviour of these christian priests that all christians, white people and europeans (because the pope is a european and 99% of the americans are european immigrants settled in US) are gay and write a book and publish it across the world?

    It makes us wonder if there was really any academic standard in the university of chicago, harvard etc. Probably the publishers of the article on NY Times are equally crooked minded like Doniger to call her a “scholar”.

    Shame on the west.

  21. 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.

    Except that there was already a study done by Narasingha Sil, Ramakrishna Paramhansa: A Psychological Profile, which documented Ramakrishna’s homosexual impluses.