Hindu nationalist attacks on scholars
December 22, 2004 10:25 PM   Subscribe

In the past several years, some prominent Western scholars of South Asian religions have been subjected to extraordinary criticism and unprecedented attacks because of their apparent disrespect for Hindu culture. Whether another instance of post-colonial academic politics or a troubling sign of the rising impact of Hindutva on academic freedom, it isn't just the study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that is becoming polarized.
posted by felix betachat (24 comments total)
N.b.: the above Hindutva link as posted is okay, but the home page sports a pretty gruesome photo of a beheading. Caveat surfor.
posted by felix betachat at 10:31 PM on December 22, 2004

Good post, felix - it's worth people hearing and knowing about this, and I think you've done a good job of getting the links. These events sadden me deeply; some of them have affected personal friends of mine. I've had contact with a number of the Hindu critics of Western scholarship. Ironically, in the most general terms I actually agree with their aim, which is for academia to regard Indian traditions more highly. It's just that they usually do it so ass-backwards - attacking the scholarship they disagree with, rather than helping to promote scholarship that sees the positive contributions these traditions can make.
posted by ramakrishna at 11:08 PM on December 22, 2004

When the "scholars" are dishing out stuff as quoted above, it's hard to blame certain extremist Hindus from chucking eggs at these people. You'd have similar reactions from Christian exremists if someone from the far east deduced that the wooden cross is nothing but a phallic symbol.

Personally, I'd rather they send their smart followers to discuss the matters with scholars they have issues with and see if they can figure out why said scholar wrote what they wrote and how they might be reading into things a tad too much.

posted by riffola at 11:13 PM on December 22, 2004

er I wanted to qoute...
In his book on Ganesha, the beloved elephant-headed deity of Hindus, Emory University professor Paul Courtright made claims that Ganesha’s trunk represents a limp phallus and the fondness for sweets of this child deity carries “overtones” of a desire for oral sex.
posted by riffola at 11:13 PM on December 22, 2004

If Satan or some other evil entity truly existed, he/it could create no better method stirring up hatred, intolerance, conflict and suffering amongst the peoples of the world than by instigating several religions and then letting human nature do the rest.
posted by Meridian at 11:14 PM on December 22, 2004

riffola, that doesn't make it right. The hindutva folks aren't simply saying that the heathens are wrong - they're saying that they shouldn't be allowed to talk at all.

(India reminds me a lot of 1935 Italy - poor, angry, and weirdly strong when it gets its shit together. It's a small step to a greater fascism.)
posted by metaculpa at 11:25 PM on December 22, 2004

Interesting ramakrishna. I come at this from the opposite angle, since I have several close friends who study with Doniger.

How would you prefer scholars "regard Indian traditions more highly"? As I see it, there is a deeply rooted ethos in the humanities of subjecting classic texts to the most vigorous criticism. This value system holds that we honor our traditions best when we question them most. At least part of the problem may be that scholars like Doniger and Courtright are employing codes which signify honor and respect in one domain, but which parse very differently in another.
posted by felix betachat at 11:28 PM on December 22, 2004

I always find strange the way Hindu right-wingers whine about Marxists and secularists. It's the same way U.S. right-wingers do about Socialists, and the same way the Muslim fundamentalists go on about social liberalism.

Makes me wonder whether leftism is a sort of convergence that can unifiably apply across cultures (as the opposite of right-wing fundamentalism, which is mutually exclusive to each group.)

Also makes one wonder whether there is a sort of sweep of fundamentalism across the world (Muslim, Hindu, Christian) that will subside in its own time, before cyclically reappearing.
posted by Firas at 11:35 PM on December 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

The threats and the violence against the Hindu scholars is deplorable and shameful. These Hindus are not doing anything to make their cause more sympathetic to outsiders.

I did find some of the psychoanalytics interpretations of Hindu mythology to be pretty interesting. The passage that Riffola quotes does highlight some qualitites of Ganesha that I have always found to be quite unusual in world mythology.

But beyond that, I'm finding that the psychoanalytic interpretations to be a bunch of bunk. Psychoanalysis is not a science and does not seem to get much respect even in the world of psychology. It is all far too subjective and far too interpreted to render anything of any use.

Is this really the state of the art in Hindu studies? It's too bad that the Hindu activists are undermining their own cause, it seems like there is a fair bit of academic ground that could be covered by using historical and sociological views of Hinduism to discredit the psychoanalysis.
posted by rks404 at 11:37 PM on December 22, 2004

metaculpa, you're right, but as I pointed out Christian extremists would do the same. That doesn't mean freedom of speech should be revoked when it comes to controversial views on religion, otherwise Salman Rushdie would be in deeper trouble than he used to be in for his book "Satanic Verses".

I think a sit down with the scholars, and perhaps an open discourse of ideas and a tad respect for each other is what is needed.
posted by riffola at 11:37 PM on December 22, 2004

Psychoanalysis is mostly useful in semiology and phenomenology - it's a useful way of characterising the mental syntax of certain kinds of signs, as well as providing useful terminology to discuss the experience of our consciousness. It's not really scientific, and shouldn't be used for scientific purposes.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:52 PM on December 22, 2004

I recently had the privilege of taking a course on Ancient Hindu and Indian literature, which was taught by a respected professor and a practicing Hindu. Now, I fully comprehend that the approval of one member of a large, varied religion is hardly persuasive, but she did in fact like Doniger (who got slammed in a few of the links), and we read a good bit of her analysis of certain texts. I found her absurd at times, but penetrating and brilliant at others, which leads me to a point: isolated points of the academics are being paraphrased to make them appear absurd, stupid, and narrowminded. Furthermore, note two problems in the Benign Face essay: for one, the author disputes that Hindu fundamentalism even exists, which is just plain wrong; and, secondly, the author dislikes Doniger because she believes that the Aryan group of people was not native to India. Now, the second point is still debatable, but the fact is that this is a very conservative, narrow Hindu writing this text: one who would conflate Indian culture with Hindu culture, one who would dispute the existence of a radical fundie movement in India, and one who dismisses the possibility that the brilliance of early Hindu culture came from outside of India.

All of this strikes me as being pure nationalism, though the religious dimension cannot be overlooked. After all, most conservative Indians - those most seeking a cohesive national identity - do so by, curiously enough, playing into the orientalist, western stereotype of India. I mean, everyone there is a Hindu who sits in a cave all day grooving on Krishna or something, right? So they use religion (the chief way by which the west defined Indian culture for years) as their tool for unity, which leads to two major things: academic suppression (to reduce opinions and therefore, in some way, come up with a more cohesive identity), and relgious-cultural tension (and thus the march of conservative Hindus on the mosque in Ayodhya, Rama's birthplace, in order to raze the Muslim worship center and erect a temple, well documented in the film "In the Name of God").

Our professor told us that uptown at Columbia one of the religious studies professors, a practicing Hindu, allows a member of the VHP's monitoring body to sit in on his classes, and whenever he strays from orthodox teaching he is brought down rather quickly. This really surprises me, simply because of the historical nature of Hinduism. Hell, the term, while in existence prior to this time, only gained real meaning once the British went into India and took a census or two. The point is, Hinduism houses a shitload of paths and ideas. It somehow managed to allow for monism, monotheism, and polytheism. (Muller needed a new term to describe the religion, because it completely boggled him. He called it kathenotheism: "the worship of one god at a time.") A Hindu temple, while there is always one patron god or goddess, holds as many deities as it can fit. The Gita is wildly different from the Upanishads which are wildly different from the epics which are wildly different from the Vedas. The point is, one beautiful aspect of Hinduism is that it is so remarkably inclusive, and this inclusiveness is being killed by a dogmatic, narrow, terroristic group.

(As for the debate about sex in Hindu literature: while the academics who prompted the links are probably a little wild, reductive, and just plain absurd and creepy at times, sex does creep into many Hindu texts, subtly or blatantly. The sexual forces - or, at least, gender forces - in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are hard to deny. Or read the Puranic tales about Krishna and his women.)

nice links, felix, and thanks!
posted by NoamChomskyStoleMyFace at 11:53 PM on December 22, 2004

Well, you could probably object to the label "fundamentalist" being applied to Hindus in that Hinduism lacks a closed text which ostensibly provides the entirety of the basis for the religion, which Christianity and Islam both have. Christians and Muslims can be "fundamentalists" because they can claim to be returning to the "fundamentals" of the religion as written in those books.

OTOH, I'm a fan of good old "extremist" to describe the BJP and the various other Hindutva fans. It avoids muddying an already muddy term ("fundamentalist") even further.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 12:05 AM on December 23, 2004

Ah, nice distinction, pseudoephedrine, and well taken.
posted by NoamChomskyStoleMyFace at 12:07 AM on December 23, 2004

Yeah - I'm sure we agree on all of this, riffola.

What makes me sad is the equation of "traditional indian culture" with hindu nationalism. For cripes sake, there have been a dozen great empires in India, and a dozen great religions. When these people say that questioning hindu dogma is questioning the state - is traitorious in itself - I get my proverbial panties in a proverbial bunch.

A good friend of mine sat on the UNESCO committee that was dishing out the dollars for "preservation of indian culture". As the token indian, he was supposed to be the voice of the people. All he had to say, though, was: There is no voice of the people; or, at least, there is no one voice. So please, stop funding only sanskrit-language hindutva research!

She was more or less shut down by the bureaucracy. Well, that, and his own limited tolerance for apathy.
posted by metaculpa at 1:02 AM on December 23, 2004

Disrespect or lack of respect? Hardly the same thing. The idea that all cultures should automatically garner respect is patently absurd (not suggesting that Hindu culture, specifically, shouldn't, but scholars are certainly entitled to form their own opinion on that without being subject to attack).
posted by rushmc at 8:15 AM on December 23, 2004

The idea that all cultures should automatically garner respect is patently absurd

That's a pretty asinine thing to say. A certain amount of respect is necessary to even attempt to understand a culture from the inside, regardless of how superior you consider your own perspective.
posted by goethean at 8:36 AM on December 23, 2004

Like Pseudoephedrine said, there are Hindu 'fundamentalists' but no Hindu fundamentalism.

Hinduism is just a blanket umbrella term to collect all similar-enough religious philosophies. It's not even a coherent religion.
posted by Gyan at 8:46 AM on December 23, 2004

This kind of thing angers me immeasurably. It's not about religion, really -- Hinduism is traditionally one of the most open, variegated, and tolerant of religions -- it's about petty nationalism dragooning religion into its service, and the thuggery and contempt for difference of opinion involved is increasingly widespread in many countries around the world, whether linked to religion or not.

you could probably object to the label "fundamentalist" being applied to Hindus in that Hinduism lacks a closed text which ostensibly provides the entirety of the basis for the religion

This is historically true but is exactly what the Hindutva assholes are trying to correct, reducing all of Hinduism to the worship of Rama. In the 19th century there was a comfortable syncretism in India, with Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs worshipping at each other's shrines and celebrating each other's festivals. One of the many depressing trends of the 20th century was an insistence on disentangling cultural and religious strands, making sure (through violence as needed) that each country, each city, each temple, each person was dedicated to One Faith, One Culture, One Leader, &c. The idea that mixture, mingling, miscegenation somehow threatens culture is absurd -- every culture and tradition and religion is the result of endless mingling and borrowing -- and "purity" is a path that can only lead to oppression and death. Of course, before (and alongside) the killing there's the suppression of thought:

(From the first link:) Oxford University Press pulled [James Laine's] book because they are fearful of physical violence

This is reminiscent of what happened with Anastasia Karakasidou's (excellent) book on Greek Macedonia when it was under consideration by Cambridge UP, and the Greek nationalist frenzy whipped up over the Macedonia issue (Karakasidou, like some of the scholars mentioned in the links, got death threats) is not in its essentials different from the Hinduist frenzy currently roiling India. I had known about what was going on in India, but I hadn't realized what it was doing to foreign scholarship. Thanks for an excellent post, felix betachat.

Oh, and:

The idea that all cultures should automatically garner respect is patently absurd

That's a pretty asinine thing to say

No it's not. Respect has to be earned, and that does not happen through threats and intimidation. It may be true that "a certain amount of respect is necessary to even attempt to understand a culture from the inside," but nobody's going to want to understand a culture from the inside if this is how it's presented.
posted by languagehat at 9:20 AM on December 23, 2004

No it's not. Respect has to be earned, and that does not happen through threats and intimidation. It may be true that "a certain amount of respect is necessary to even attempt to understand a culture from the inside," but nobody's going to want to understand a culture from the inside if this is how it's presented.

The extremists are a minority, that would be like saying Mormonism is how Christianity is seen by non Christians.
posted by riffola at 10:16 AM on December 23, 2004

A certain amount of respect is necessary to even attempt to understand a culture from the inside, regardless of how superior you consider your own perspective.

You've got the wrong end of the stick. As languagehat points out, respect must be earned. It is ridiculously wrong-headed to suggest that it is or should be the default state in which all things exist. Everything gets a period of neutrality while you examine it. Based upon what you learn, it either gets respect or doesn't. No one is suggesting judging any culture (or anything else) immediately upon first contact.
posted by rushmc at 11:56 AM on December 23, 2004

True, but it doesn't affect my point, which is that nobody deserves automatic respect.
posted by languagehat at 11:57 AM on December 23, 2004

riffola: Scholars do make Freudian psychoanalytic claims about Christianity all the time. Not sure about the cross as phallic symbol (the crossbar doesn't look much like a foreskin), but certainly Prof. Mark Jordan argues in The Silence of Sodom that male worship of Jesus is a fundamentally homoerotic activity. Jeff Kripal lists many similar references in one of his many defences of his work. They're not from Asia, sure, but I'm not really sure what a difference it would make if they were. Overall, I think, you don't hear all that much about this sort of thing from Christian extremists these days because it's been going on for so long already. They already know academics are going to hell.

felix: I agree with you that it's the academy's job to subject all traditions to vigorous criticism. However, that includes criticizing modern secular tradition using the views of other times and places. What I was trying to get at is that constructive scholars - that is, those who try and suggest there might be something to Buddhist or "Hindu" ideas, that their philosophies might be valuable to us and not just antiquated relics - are generally looked on with suspicion. Sometimes the suspicion is simple ethnocentrism, sometimes it derives from a secular fear of anything that looks "religious," but most of the time it just comes from that irritating postmodern fear of saying that anything is better than anything else in any respect. Whatever the source, that suspicion is what I want to see changed. I want to see Vedantins and Yogacarins be able to speak in the Western study of religion as Vedantins and Yogacarins, without having to conceal those identities under a facade of so-called objectivity or neutrality; but just as much, I want to see Marxists and Freudians continue to be able to do the same thing. And I loathe what the people in the links are doing because they wind up bashing the Marxists and Freudians without promoting the Vedantins and Yogacarins - indeed, they often wind up giving us constructive scholars an even worse name than we already have. And that pisses me off.
posted by ramakrishna at 9:10 PM on December 23, 2004

Er, I hope this is obvious, but my previous comment was responding to riffola, not rushmc.

ramakrishna: Exactly; the would-be censors are making it even more difficult for others to take seriously the religion they're trying to promote.
posted by languagehat at 6:28 AM on December 24, 2004

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