Disputes in Hindu Studies in
HINDUISM TODAY: WASHINGTON, D.C., April 10, 2004:
The Washington Post, one of America's leading newspaper,
published this informative article on several disputes in the academic arena
regarding the study of Hinduism. There is a growing movement in the US for
Hindus to gain control of the academic treatment of Hinduism at the university
level, just as women, Jews and African Americans have so done over the last 40
years. One excellent model is Emory University's Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute
for Jewish Studies (http://www.emory.edu/COLLEGE/JewishStudies/index.html) which
has a faculty of thirty, including three ordained rabbis. The Hindu-American
community can explore means of funding chairs in Hindu studies and even entire
institutes of Hindu studies.
We reproduce the article in full below:
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Folklore has it that elephants never forget, and Paul
Courtright has reason to believe it. A professor of religion at Emory
University, he immersed himself in the story of Ganesha, the beloved Hindu god
with the head of an elephant. Detecting provocative Oedipal overtones in
Ganesha's story -- and phallic symbolism in his trunk -- he wrote a book
setting out his theories in 1985.
Nineteen years later, thanks to an Internet campaign, the world has
rediscovered Courtright's book. After a scathing posting on a popular Indian
Web site, he has received threats from Hindu militants who want him dead.
"Gopal from Singapore said, 'The professor bastard should be hanged,' " said
Courtright, incredulous. "A guy from Germany said, 'Wish this person was next
to me, I would have shot him in the head.' A man called Karodkar said, 'Kill
the bastard. Whoever wrote this should not be spared.' Someone wanted to throw
me into the Indian Ocean."
Other academics writing about Hinduism have encountered similar hostility,
from tossed eggs to assaults to threats of extradition and prosecution in
The attacks against American scholars come as a powerful movement called
Hindutva has gained political power in India, where most of the world's 828
million Hindus live. Its proponents assert that Hindus have long been
denigrated and that Western authors are imposing a Eurocentric world view on a
culture they do not understand.
That argument resonates among many of the roughly 1.4 million Hindus in North
America as well.
In November, Wendy Doniger, a University of Chicago professor of the history
of religion who has written 20 books about India and Hinduism, had an egg
flung at her by an angry Hindu when she was lecturing in London. It missed.
In January, a book about the Hindu king Shivaji by Macalester College
religious studies professor James W. Laine provoked violent outbursts: One of
Laine's collaborators in India was assaulted, and a mob destroyed rare
manuscripts at an institute in India where Laine had done research. The Indian
edition was recalled, and India's prime minister warned Laine not to "play
with our national pride." Officials said they want to extradite the Minnesota
author to stand trial for defamation, and the controversy has become a
campaign issue in upcoming parliamentary elections.
Doniger, a 63-year-old scholar at the center of many controversies, is
distressed to see her field come under the sway of what she regards as
"The argument," she said, "is being fueled by a fanatical nationalism and
Hindutva, which says no one has the right to make a mistake, and no one who is
not a Hindu has the right to speak about Hinduism at all."
U.S. Cradle of Backlash
The recent controversy began not in New Delhi but in New
In an essay posted on a Web site called Sulekha.com, New Jersey entrepreneur
Rajiv Malhotra argued that Doniger and her students had eroticized and
denigrated Hinduism, which was part of the reason "the American mainstream
misunderstands India so pathologically."
Malhotra criticized in particular a book for which Doniger had written the
foreword -- Courtright's "Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings." The
book drew psychoanalytic inferences about Ganesha, also known as Ganesa or
Ganpathi, the son of the Hindu god Shiva and his wife, Parvati.
Malhotra's critique produced a swift and angry response from thousands of
Hindus. An Atlanta group wrote to the president of Emory University asking
that Courtright be fired.
"The implication," said Courtright, "was this was a filthy book and I had no
business teaching anything." He said the quotes had been taken out of context
and ignored the uplifting lessons he had drawn from Ganesha's story.
Salman Akhtar, an Indian American psychoanalyst, said the disagreement sprang
from different worldviews. "Are religious stories facts or myths?" he asked.
"Facts cannot be interpreted. Stories can be interpreted."
The book was withdrawn in India, where the local edition's book jacket, which
Courtright had neither seen nor approved, depicted Ganesha as a child -- in
"It was very painful reading," said T.R.N. Rao, a computer science professor
at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who advises the university's
branch of the Hindu Student Council, a national group with Hindutva roots. "It
makes Ganesha a eunuch . . . It was very vulgar."
Rao and the council started an Internet petition against the book. Seven
thousand people signed within a week -- and among their comments were 60
threats of violence.
The petition was swiftly removed. "We condemn any threats to the author and
the publisher," said Rao. "We wanted to get the book corrected and replaced. .
. . We are not asking for banning the book. I am a professor and I know the
value of academic freedom."
Insider vs. Outsider
Courtright was not the first to find Oedipal overtones in the
Ganesha story. But his book became a rallying point for devout Hindus in the
United States who say the academic study of their religion is completely at
odds with the way they experience their faith.
"For the past five years, our field has been in turmoil," said Arvind Sharma,
a professor of comparative religion at McGill University in Montreal, who
sides with the critics even as he disavows the violence. "There may be a
Hindutva connection in what happened in India and the death threats and the
person who threw the egg, but there also is a Hindu response."
Sharma was asked to write an essay on Hinduism for Microsoft's Encarta
encyclopedia to replace a previous essay written by Doniger. The switch came
after a Hindu activist, a former Microsoft engineer named Sankrant Sanu,
charged that Doniger's article perpetuated misleading stereotypes and asked
for a rewrite by an "insider."
"For pretty much all the religious traditions in America, most of the people
studying it are insiders," said Sanu. "They are people who are believers. This
is true for Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. This is not true for
In January, fresh controversy along the same lines erupted over a book by
Macalester College's Laine, "Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India," which
explored the life of a 17th-century icon of the Hindutva movement.
After Laine suggested in his book that Shivaji's parents may have been
estranged -- an assertion that upset Hindus who see them as nearly divine -- a
history scholar in India who had collaborated with Laine was roughed up and
smeared with tar by members of Shiv Sena, a Hindutva group. Another
nationalist group called the Sambhaji Brigade stormed the Bhandarkar Oriental
Research Institute in the city of Pune, and destroyed priceless manuscripts.
The reason? Laine had done research there .
"No one in Pune today will defend my book, not my friends, not my colleagues,
because they are fearful," Laine said. "Oxford University Press pulled the
book because they are fearful of physical violence. There will be a chilling
effect on what topics you choose to do."
Many Indian scholars have rushed to the defense of the American authors. They
say the controversy over the books is part of a larger pattern of political
violence against scholars in India.
Doniger blames the Internet campaigns. "Malhotra's ignorant writings have
stirred up more passionate emotions in Internet subscribers who know even less
than Malhotra does, who do not read books at all," Doniger wrote in an e-mail.
"And these people have reacted with violence. I therefore hold him indirectly
Dwarakanath Rao (no relation to T.R.N. Rao), a Hindu psychoanalyst in Ann
Arbor, Mich., said Doniger had written moving interpretations of Hindu texts
that made them accessible for the first time in North America.
"I just do not hear disrespect," he said. "I hear a woman who, frankly, is in
love with India."
Malhotra said he began his campaign after visiting African
American scholars at Princeton University, who told him that it had taken the
civil rights movement before black scholars were allowed into schools to tell
their own history.
Hindus were only following in the footsteps of blacks, Jews and the Irish, he
said, likening his campaign to a consumer struggle: "It's no different than
Ralph Nader saying we need a consumer voice against General Motors."
Malhotra disavowed the violence -- he called the attackers "hooligans." He
said he has campaigned against the Hindutva agenda and opposed the Internet
petition against Courtright. "I know I am championed by the Hindu right but
there is nothing I can do about that," he said.
Indeed, Malhotra's critique seems to have less to do with religious
nationalism than public relations. Doniger and other academics are "an inbred,
incestuous group that control a vertically integrated industry," the former
telecom entrepreneur said. Unlike other critics' objections, Malhotra's is not
that outsiders have written about India -- he has himself encouraged many
Americans to study India -- but that the books have harmed the image of what
he calls "India Inc."
"In America," he said, "everything is negotiable -- you have to negotiate who
you are and how they think of you." Previously, Malhotra waged a campaign
against CNN for coverage that he charged was biased toward India's rival,
Pakistan. A foundation he has launched is dedicated to "upgrade the portrayal
of India's civilization in the American education system and media."
This approach does not go down well within the academy. "We are not in the
business of marketing a nation state," said Vijay Prashad, an international
studies scholar at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in a recent Internet
debate with Malhotra. "That is the job of the ambassador of India, not of a
McGill's Sharma, a practicing Hindu, countered that the academy had never been
neutral, objective ground. Trends in academia have always been governed by
shifts in public opinion: "The recalibration of a power equation is an untidy
But if the controversies are only about influence, Doniger said, there was
little use in discussing the merits of the various books, or her Encarta essay
on Hinduism. "It does not matter whether the article published under my name
was right or wrong," she said in an e-mail. "The only important thing about it
was that I wrote it and someone named Sharma did not."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company