Academic Hinduphobia - chapter 2

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Section I – Exposing Academic Hinduphobia – By Pandita Indrani Rampersad, PhD

The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think . . . Throughout the Mahabharata . . . Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive
behaviors such as war . . . The Gita is a dishonest book; it justifies war.
Wendy Doniger, in Philadelphia Inquirer

There is generally, therefore, an inverse ratio between the worship of goddesses and the granting of rights to human women. Nor are the goddesses by and large compassionate; they are generally
a pretty bloodthirsty lot. Goddesses are not the solution.
Wendy Doniger, in Washington Post

(Please refer pages 15-16 for the introductory comic strip)

Chapter 2: Religious Studies: Projecting One’s Shadow on the ‘Other’

This section paraphrases RISA Lila-1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome, a seminal essay by Rajiv Malhotra, published in September 2002 on an Indian-American web magazine. The essay critiqued a selection of scholarly literature associated with the American Academy of Religion summarized prior criticisms of established scholars. Its main contribution was to make the academic materials more easily accessible and to encourage non-academicians to participate in the debate. The essay revealed explicit examples of Hinduphobia in the work of certain scholars in Religious Studies and related academic fields. It also examined the training and expertise of several Western scholars, particularly their ability to translate Indian languages into English. The essay also examined the use of psychoanalysis and other Eurocentric theories to analyze specifically Indic categories and conditions.

The objective here is to analyze and critique a specific genre of American scholarship that uses Freudian theories to interpret Indian culture. A central point made by the essay is that there are no true outsiders—because those who stand outside Hinduism remain firmly inside their own ideologies, institutions and cultures.

Chapter 3 shows how award-winning scholars declared Sri Ramakrishna (hereafter referred to simply as ‘Ramakrishna’), the nineteenth century Hindu saint, to be a sexually disturbed and abusive homosexual.

Chapter 4 shows how other award-winning scholarship from America describes the Hindu Goddess in ways that would resemble a sex maniac and demonic person. She is seen as over-sexed and violent—her sexuality being the focus of scholarly analyses and she allegedly
inspires or somehow causes violence.

Chapter 5 shows how some well-placed scholars have concluded that Ganesha’s trunk symbolizes a ‘limp phallus’; his broken tusk is a symbol for the castration-complex of Indian men; and his large belly and love of sweets are proof of the Hindu male’s enormous appetite for oral sex. Such academic works have received awards from the most prestigious American institutions of scholarship, and such views about Hinduism have started to gain respectability in mainstream America.

Chapter 6 exposes scholarship which claims that Hindu mothers do not love and bond with their children to the same extent that White women do. Those critics from outside the academy who have dared to speak up have been condemned as ‘hijackers’ of the scholarship.

Chapter 7 gives examples where one of today’s pre-eminent American interpreters of Sanskrit texts, Wendy Doniger, is harshly criticized by a few scholars. Her translations (and mistranslations) are widely relied upon by other scholars, and are widely disseminated as prescribed readings in American colleges and among the public as popular paperbacks.

Chapter 8 shows how this group of scholars dismisses Tantra as a hypocritical philosophical and spiritual mask hiding its true character as pornography and a system of exploitation of the lower castes.

Many inauthentic translations and interpretations by pre-eminent Indologists have been popularized into standard meanings today. Such scholars dismiss the translations and interpretations of contemporary Tantric practitioners as inauthentic and are contemptuous of practicing Hindus participating in the discourse about their own traditions. Indeed, practicing Hindus are treated as inferior to the scholars and are excluded from the discourse about their traditions. The American Academy of Religion (AAR) needs to investigate this serious issue and its multifaceted ethics committees could serve as ombudsmen to ensure that the communities’ voices have a fair representation.

The group of scholars who are the focus of this book has concluded that, in order to understand modern India, Hindu society at large needs to be psychoanalyzed for its sexual deviance and pathologies. RISA Lila-1 raised the concern that, historically, pogroms, incarceration, slavery, oppression, and genocides of ethnic peoples—such as of Native Americans, Blacks, Jews, Gypsies, Cubans, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Chinese, and Japanese—have often followed depictions of them by White Americans, first as primitive/exotic, then as dangerous ‘savages’ threatening civilization or ‘our way of life’, and finally as lacking in human values and therefore unworthy in ‘civilized’ society.

Many scholars in this group are interconnected, and follow the lead of the powerful and influential academician, Wendy Doniger. By focusing its analysis on this specific group of scholars, RISA Lila-1 was adapting an established practice in Indian logic, termed prathamamalla-nyaya, where the exemplar of a particular line of argument is taken on, and if demolished, the whole school or argument is debunked.

Later, this section presents two new theoretical models: one called the Chakra Hermeneutics model for understanding how a diversity of approaches to Hinduism is possible; and the other called Wendy’s Child Syndrome to reverse the gaze upon this group of scholars by applying
Chakra Hermeneutics.

Asymmetries of Power

The majority of the scholars in academic Hinduism Studies are from outside the Hindu traditions, while at the same time they are ‘insiders’ to other religious and political ideologies and cultural identities.

The views of Hindu practitioners are seen as being less reliable and legitimate than scholarly perspectives. As will be seen, a divergent view or critique from Hindu practitioners, is sometimes perceived by academicians as a personal ‘attack’ against them.

The result of personal and career bonds among the small number of specialists in a given topic is unhealthy to the integrity of the peer review process. Personality cults develop around certain scholars who are in academic positions of power in Hinduism Studies and whose work is propagated uncritically by their students. The powerful scholar in turn nurtures and protects his/her students.

The theoretical model called ‘Wendy’s Child Syndrome’ (presented later in this section) reverses the gaze back on the scholars of India. The primary symptom of the syndrome is the use of Freudian analysis and other fashionable Eurocentric theories to deconstruct and reconstruct the ‘Hindu other’, and in the process caricature and trivialize Indian personalities, practices, scriptures and deities. Contrary to their scholarly commitment to intellectual freedom and openness, many academicians have responded to this investigative research with a surprising degree of intolerance and hostility, while thankfully, there were others who privately encouraged it.

Freudian Psychoanalysis of Non-Western Cultures

The validity of applying Freudian psychoanalysis to non-Western religions is questionable. Even though it has been largely rejected within contemporary Western academia, psychoanalysis has become a very fashionable methodology to study Indian culture. Sudhir Kakar, one of India’s best known psychologists and academicians anticipated this challenge when he wrote back in 1982:

Psychoanalysis . . . has been insufficiently aware of its underlying paradigm and its deep roots in Western culture. The implicit model of man that underlies the psychoanalytic meta-theory is certainly not universal; the psychoanalytic notion of the person as an autonomous, bounded, abstract individual is a peculiarly Western notion. In contrast, the holistic model of man that underlies Indian mystical approaches and propels their practices is rooted in the very different Indian cultural tradition which, in some ways, lies at an opposite civilizational pole.

Applied psychoanalysis is a method used to analyze myths, religion, folklore, and culture. Kakar finds it unfortunate that “the constraints which apply to the psychoanalytic treatment situation, namely, the analyst’s attitudes of respect and objectivity towards the patient, are largely absent in . . . works of ‘applied’ psychoanalysis.”

Freud’s fascination with ‘taboo totems’ influenced many social scientists to use psychoanalysis to interpret their ethnographic studies. Their ethnographies would ‘confirm’ or ‘falsify’ Freud’s notions such as the Oedipus complex.

Institutions of Knowledge Production and Distribution

As with any large academic field, Religious Studies in the US is highly organized and features prestigious journals, academic chairs, and extensive programs of study. The American Academy of Religion (AAR) is the primary organization for academic scholars of Religious Studies in the United States. RISA (Religions in South Asia) is the unit within the AAR for scholars who study and teach about religions in the Indian subcontinent. For the most part, the controversies described herein emerged out of the Indian diaspora’s debates with RISA scholars and the issues cannot automatically be generalized to apply to other areas of the academy.

Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor of History and Religion at the University of Chicago, is one of the most influential persons in the study of religion. Partly as a result of Malhotra’s essay, Doniger and other scholars have come under the scrutiny of Hindus in North America—for their practice of dredging-for-dirt and using disheveled, questionable approaches to translations and interpretations of traditional Hindu texts. Many white Americans with personal spiritual connections to Hinduism have also taken note of this fabulously contrived, out-of-context eroticizing of Indian culture.

Doniger’s former students have been successfully placed in academic jobs and chairs, carrying forward the torch of her theories and research principles regarding Hinduism. She is notorious for her racy, bawdy interpretations of Hindu texts. A BBC-linked site wryly describes her: Professor Wendy Doniger is known for being rude, crude and very lewd in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit Academics. All her special works have revolved around the subject of sex in Sanskrit texts.

The influence of Doniger’s Freudian approach to Indian society is not relegated to the confines of the Ivory Tower; indeed, it has had a pervasive and pernicious impact across mainstream America. She and her protégés—the chelas in her parampara, many of whom have approvingly been called Wendy’s Children—contribute many articles on India and Hinduism to widely used resources. These include Microsoft’s Encarta, and other encyclopedias and reference works, as well as textbooks used in Asian Studies courses across the US.

Further, Freudian speculation about Ganesha having an Oedipal complex) has made its way into American museums as ‘fact’. One of the foremost art museums in the US is the famous Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Its display on Asian Art features some rare and precious art objects of Asia. Each display item has an explanation next to it that is also in the museum’s coffee table book referenced below. These explanations are important, because many school tours visit the museum, and through art, the kids learn about Asian culture. The large eleventh century Ganesha carving in the collection has a write-up, andthe following are excerpts from it: “Ganesa, is a son of the great god Siva, and many of his abilities are comic or absurd extensions of the lofty dichotomies of his father.” And it then goes on to say: “Ganesa’s potbelly and his childlike love for sweets mock Siva’s practice of austerities, and his limp trunk will forever be a poor match for Siva’s erect phallus.”

Furthermore, anthropologists, like Stanley Kurtz,25 have concluded that nursing Hindu mothers do not bond with their babies the way white women do and that Hindus lack a sense of individuality because of their inability to perceive separation in space or time. Additionally, Doniger sees the classic, widely revered and time-honored Indian epic Mahabharata as Krishna engaging in genocide.

Recently, a significant number of Hindu-Americans and members of the academy have called into question the off-color, ingeniously refashioned scholarly works made by some academicians. The Hindu intellectuals who persist in analytically questioning this scholarship have been profiled and targeted as ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘attackers’ by RISA scholars and some journalists. This dismissive, dehumanizing process potentially sets Hindu-Americans up for a denial of their basic human rights.

The Paradigm is Shifting

RISA Lila-1 galvanized many members of the diaspora and academic scholars to start paying attention to the issues, and some of them wrote letters and articles on this relevant topic—a selection of which is featured in this book. Ironically, in the process they were transformed from objects of ‘clinical’ study by academicians to objects of academic scorn and phobia. Instead of being seen as a treasured resource, and as a source for professional research, the Hindu/Indian ‘others’ morphed into dangerous academic adversaries threatening the purity and elitism of the Ivory Tower.

To read the entire chapter please refer pages 17 to 26

Go to chapter 3

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