Wendy Doniger and Interpretation of Hindu Mythology
Kṛṣṇa in the Mahābhārata
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[Part 1 | Part II]
[Digest is still being compiled and edited, Introduction to be written – Sunthar]
extended debate pits traditionalist Hindus against American Indologists—with
various shades of opinion in-between—around the work and personality of Prof.
Wendy Doniger at the
Related threads at svAbhinava:
[Mukur is responding below to David Loy’s Petition for Peace and Frank B. Brown’s own thoughts on 9/11]
From: Mukur K. Khisha
To: Sunthar Visuvalingam
for endorsing copy of the mail to me. Though I am a practicing Buddhist,
personally I have my reservations about submitting to terrorism which is a
universal scourge. There can be no compromise with manifest evils. Appeasement
“Whenever there is decay of righteousness
and there is resurgence of unrighteousness,
I incarnate myself.
For the protection of the righteous, to destroy the evil-doers,
And to re-establish the order of Dharma,
I am born and reborn
Epoch after epoch (again and again.)”
Warm regards to you & Elizabeth,
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
To: Mukur K. Khisha
citation from the Bhagavad Gita strikes a deep personal chord: it was through
listening to Lord Krishna’s sermons through the mouth of eloquent preachers
is this incapacity to understand (much less appreciate...) the subtleties of
Hindu thought that has led Indologists, like Wendy Doniger (and, before her,
the Buddhist Marxist, D.D. Kosambi), to denounce Krishna before American
students (much to the outrage of Hindu members of the Liverpool Indology
mailing list). When I took my Australian brother-in-law so long ago in KL to
see the Tamil film, Karna,
that celebrates the loyalty, chivalry and generosity of this (3rd) Kaurava
general, he emerged from the cinema calling Krishna a “fink” for having so
cruelly and treacherously machinated the death of this undisputed hero. Yes, it’s difficult for a child of Abraham
(much less for a Buddhist...), to understand how even illiterate Tamils in
From: Frank Burch Brown
To: Sunthar Visuvalingam
As I’ve just been reading and studying the Gita with my students in World Religions, and as questions of violence and non-violence have naturally arisen, we’ve tried to take multiple perspectives into account. I’m less familiar with the whole epic context of the Gita, however, and your comments are helpful. The Gita remains one of my favorite religious texts, but certainly not because its many internal tensions can easily be resolved! But neither can the tensions easily be resolved within any other religious text that matters centrally to me, I must say. That is part of their ongoing power, I think.
I’m sorry that Wendy Doniger indulged in oversimplification, as you’ve previously reported. She’s not known as a philosopher of religion, of course. But she is indeed celebrated as a translator and interpreter of Indian traditions (as you know very well), so her insensitivity at this point is puzzling and embarrassing.
Does this odd outburst of cross-cultural judgment from such a scholar come from that side of our academic life that often tolerates/encourages sweeping generalizations and blanket condemnations when launched from a feminist or Marxist perspective while insisting on infinite (over) refinements of analysis in so many other ways? I’m in great sympathy with many feminist critiques, and indeed with certain Marxist critiques as well, and certainly I’ve seen sharp criticisms launched against biblical ideologies from all sorts of standpoints. But it sounds as though this one was ill-judged and inappropriate. I wish I could see at least the text of her remarks, if there is such a text available.
I plan to be out of town for a few days now.
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
To: Frank Burch Brown
Cc: Alf Hiltebeitel; Elizabeth Visuvalingam; Mukur K. Khisha; Rajiv Malhotra
Doniger has been sharply criticized on various counts even by her American
colleagues. When I met in Paris long ago with an appreciative Paul Ricoeur to
discuss my hermeneutics of humor and the clown (thesis abstract and the
original transgressive sacrality paper), he visibly shook his head and frowned
(but stopped just short of making derogatory remarks) on the
(mis-)appropriation of his theological reflections in her Origins of Evil. Similarly, the Vedicist Michael Witzel has lambasted her for her
deficiency in Sanskrit, (mis-) translations and poor scholarship, so much so
that she once asked us with a hurt expression: “why does Witzel hate me so
much?” Madeleine Biardeau, the papess of French Indology, had only scorn for
Wendy and the latter’s supposed ‘structuralism’ (until she hurt herself
physically in the
first exposed to what perhaps still remains her classic, viz. Asceticism
and Eroticism in the Mythology of Shiva, I was both fascinated and horrified. It was only after my
discovery of tantricism, Abhinavagupta and (through
seems to me that her very exposure to (and excitement about!) so many mutually
incompatible models of interpretation actually has the paradoxical effect of
creating, at least on some occasions, the space for a more balanced judgment.
At a frankly feminist cross-cultural panel, at the 1991
the Mahabharata itself denounces Krishna (I need to reread the details of the
passage): when a great sage (Uttanka), who was away on pilgrimage (or the like)
during this Hindu Armageddon, returns to discover too late what his Lord had
“engineered” he prepares to unleash his fury through a potent curse.
value of the Mahâbhârata is that it offers so many conflicting perspectives on
“righteousness” (dharma) even while positing, implicitly
or explicitly, that Krishna’s conduct, even when seemingly reprehensible or
incomprehensible, is ultimately divine (e.g., I’m not sure that an Indian
holocaust would have resulted in a theological impasse comparable to what
devout Jews have had to deal with...). For most Hindus,
the issue, as I see it, is not whether Wendy has misunderstood or even
From: Alf Hiltebeitel
An interesting appreciation of Wendy. Good to see you speaking out for unexpected rewards of listening, complexity, and kindness. All good things indeed.
From: Antonio de Nicolás
To: Sunthar Visuvalingam
I am glad you got Meditations. The format varies and the adaptation to it has added a few spelling mistakes. You are welcome.
I did receive the magazines and gave Pedro permission to publish my articles.
Your article on transgression is very good and much needed. I have been considering certain aspects of it for a long time. The Ethics of transgression: the Western mind will not understand these ethics unless you link them to the reality of dharma, the dhr that holds together the moment and the choices of the moment. There are no a priori laws in dharma.
And second to the fact that ethics in dharma is the ability to choose from among the present various options the best, always, by habit...This is the Indic tradition. It cannot be compared to the Western Ethics where decisions are based on “veridical”, universal laws with the affirmations of the left brain and where there is no need to develop frontal lobes, essential to decisions in complex situations. Keep up the good work and let me know when the book is out.
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
To: Antonio de Nicholas
With regard to
the ‘situational’ or ‘contextual’ understanding of Dharma in traditional
Alf had chaired the transgressive sacrality
More in due course!
Lord GaNeZa caught red-handed in Hugh Heffner’s
From: Laurie Patton
To: Sunthar Visuvalingam
I must say you make a strong case for the open interpretation of Ganesh as including sexual content—which is what Paul’s book was also doing. I agree with your interpretation wholeheartedly, and loved its sense of humor!
I am puzzled as to why you persist in assuming some kind of “school” of Wendy’s “Orientalists”—there’s just no evidence for it, and if anything, you yourself make the case stronger than any other folks do for some intriguing perspectives on sexuality and the family. Were you being facetious in your message?
PS there are at least 20 death threats in that petition. It’s now a document of hate.
Laurie L. Patton
Professor of Early Indian Religions
Winship Distinguished Research Professor in the Humanities and Chair,
Department of Religion
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
To: Laurie Patton
Thanks for responding to my reflections on the GaNeza controversy that I hope to get back to in due course, rather than with a couple of hasty generalizations that might easily be misinterpreted in one direction or the other. I was being (more than just) ‘facetious’ because I felt that some sympathetic (as opposed to merely derisive) humor might nudge everyone towards looking at the issues in other ways that might help defuse both the mounting hatred and the fear, provide a breathing space at least.
Believe me, I am not at all happy with what’s happening......on either side!
P.S. I’ve appended a thread regarding Wendy—again, forced out of me by circumstances—your comments would be appreciated... [the ‘appended’ thread is the preceding one all the way up to Mukur’s original post – SV]
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
Prof. Shrinivas Tilak, Taking Back Hindu Studies
of Indology (Open RISA,
Dear Prof. Tilak,
I read your above Sulekha article, as soon as it appeared, with much appreciation for your portrayal of the ‘Hindu dilemma’—for the (mis-) representation of (the complexity of) Indian traditions and sensibility (that often cuts across religious divides...) has preoccupied me ever since the ‘culture shock’ of moving to India to study at the Sanskrit and Benares Hindu Universities. Thank you for having penned your thoughts.
I would be grateful if you could share with us, even if only from memory, a concise conceptual summary of Wendy’s ‘methodology’ as delineated in her and Bolle’s articles. I am particularly interested in issues and dimensions that might contradict or have been left out of my own assessment [above]. Readers should bear in mind that the [above] thread dates back to 9/11 (01), before I launched the Abhinavagupta forum, and that my appraisal of Wendy was then based on readings, impressions, discussions with mutual colleagues, etc., dating back to more than a decade...
P.S. The several participants of this electronic dialogue (samvâda) will surely agree that their considered thoughts are of great public interest!
[rest of this thread at Sunthar V. (3rd June 04),
From: Raja Mylvaganam
To: [Abhinava msg #1905]
If Freud befuddled many of us by equating the Oedipus myth (slaying the father to marry the mother) with everyman and woman what are we to make of this determination of Hindu men to ‘slay’ the Mother (Wendy Doniger). The former myth, it has been successfully argued, was a misapplication of a kingship ritual by Freud. What myth are we acting out in this relentless attack on Wendy Doniger?
Or is it possible that there are some latter day
entrants to the field of South Asian studies in the
I agree there have been excesses in the interpretations using the psychoanalytical worldview. But the only decent (scholarly) rebuttal by an Indian that I have read is the one by the Vivekananda group to Kripal’s thesis. (If you are looking for work by Doniger to critique try her book Hindu Myths published by Penguin). The rest of the articles including those in Sulekha have been more akin to going hunting with a shot-gun loaded with buckshot. The spray is wide enough that it will hit something but every hunter will tell you that any game killed in this manner is so full of lead that it is completely useless.
As for Srinivas Tilak’s suggestion that Hindus
should start their own private schools failing S. Kalyanaraman’s effort to
introduce the ‘correct’ Hinduism, good luck to you but you will not
succeed. Not because the
Wendy Doniger in her recent forward to the book by White has clearly indicated that the battle has been joined. Who can blame her given the extreme provocation that she has endured. But she has let herself down by stooping to the level of the fanatics whose agenda and authority is not clear. Fortunately, those who seek to corner the market on Hinduism will suffer the same fate as the Hunte family who tried to do the same with silver. The reason is quite simple. It takes many years of careful attention to the nature of this nation of associations and paying one’s dues before one is permitted entry. Incidentally African-Americans and Hispanics have a hard time understanding what Indian immigrants have to complain about if anything.
I expect that I have offended a few but I guess it is the nature of this dia-logue. And you are right I am a LIBERAL and proud of it!
From: Shrinivas Tilak
To: [Jnana (= Open Risa) msg #124]
Reply: I must preface my response with a correction: since I never held a tenured teaching position, I should not be addressed as professor. Shrinivas or Dr Tilak will do.
Though it goes back two decades, I think Professor Bolle’s assessment of Professor Doniger’s writings is still valid and useful because the weaknesses he detected earlier seem to have amplified with the passage of time. After paying suitable compliments to her erudition etc., Bolle goes to the heart of the issue: Doniger’s methodological weakness. Among other things he lists (1) undue emphasis on Hindu mythology and fiction while lacking the philosophical vigour of Hinduism or Buddhism (One philosopher thought that The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology was ‘chaotic’ (p.24); (2) raising eclecticism to the level of virtue; (3) He finds troublesome Doniger’s introduction to Rigveda 10:28, a hymn featuring Indra: “A son of Indra gave a sacrifice and invited the gods; all but Indra came to it, for Indra was angry with the son’s pretensions to be another Indra.” Though the Freudian blueprint is discernible here, what bothers Bolle more is that “the reader is not permitted or invited to think along other lines than what traditional scholarship has done” (p.23). Bolle detects here an unhealthy tendency to ‘psychologize’ or ‘personalize’ Hindu documents and data she is scrutinizing. In support, he quotes the observation of an unnamed scholar, “She thinks she has psyched out the Indians” (p. 23). Overall, he finds Doniger’s methodology lacking in `openness’ (p.25) (see “Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in Retrospect” In Religious Studies Review, vol. 10, no 1 (Jan 1984): 20-26.
I personally feel that there is much in Doniger’s writings that all Hindus need to carefully ponder and reflect upon. But there is much more that must be refuted. Take, for instance, her article “Inside and Outside the Mouth of God: The Boundary Between Myth and Reality” (Daedalus 109/2 (spring 1980): 93-125.
In this article Doniger is at pains to explain the porous nature of the boundary between myth/dream and reality in the Hindu tradition. This position is driven home through the creation of a number of myths.
Myths of the mouth of God (or Guru), for instance, (1) undermine one’s confidence in the reality of apparently real phenomena (on this side of the mouth of God); and (2) attempt to establish the reality of apparently mythic phenomena (on the other side of the mouth of God).
In support of this claim Doniger translates and analyzes three well known Hindu myths that depict the relative nature of appearance and reality: (1) Yashoda’s seeing the universe in the opened mouth of child Krishna; (2) Sage Markandeya’s realizing the ultimate reality after being swallowed and expelled from the mouth of Vishnu; and (3) Kacha’s going in and coming out of the mouth of his guru Shukra for learning the art and knowledge of attaining immortality.
One of Doniger’s conclusions is that “properly understood, such myths provide a conceptual system through which we may understand and construct universal reality” (p.120). The myths of the mouth of God provide, she claims, “a mirror image of conventional social [and cultural] evaluations of what is real and what is not real.” I have no problem with these assertions.
However, I part company with her as soon as the following statement appears:” We can best understand our own myths and those of other people by translating them into other myths.” Presumably, her “tool-box” methodology or approach guarantees “a means of translating reality, of establishing a vocabulary with which to understand what goes on in the heads of other people” (p.120).
I have no quibbles with Doniger’s metaphor of toolbox. Indeed, eclecticism, inclusivism, syncretism, and polytropy (the term coined by Michel Carrithers to refer to the dominant themes of fluidity and eclecticism of Indic religious life) constitute important and useful hermeneutical tools in the traditional Indian toolbox. Perfected by Yaska and Sayana (among others) they have served well the generations of Indians for understanding and relating to their thought universe.
But modern epistemology and exegesis have no use for these traditional tools. The toolbox of Doniger and other bricoleurs is filled with feminist theory, Jungian psychology, literary theory, psychoanalysis, structuralism and other fancy, high-powered tools. Perhaps a non-Hindu reader is able to understand the universal reality expressed in relevant Hindu myths using these approaches. But I doubt any average Hindu man or woman would. If you claim to understand the game of chess better and in a more original way, your claim must be so recognized and understood by those who know and play it.
Doniger’s “Pluralism and Intolerance in Hinduism” (Radical Pluralism and Truth: David Tracy and the Hermeneutics of Religion, edited by Werner Jeanrond and Jennifer L Rike, New York: Crossroads, 1991) is yet another article that Hindus must study carefully. Notwithstanding the infuriating title and some very irresponsible comments and remarks like “The fanatics among Hindus kill people (such as Muslims) (p.228),” the article does have redeeming features.
She begins by distinguishing between intellectual and sociological pluralism (p. 215) and recognizes the merits of ancient Hindu intellectual pluralism. She however laments that it did not lead to sociological pluralism. Since it is now available to the Western world, it must make the best use of it. “In fact,” she adds, “Ancient Indian religion is an idea whose time now has come” (p.233). Here I must interject a note of warning! Is it yet another instance of what Rajiv Malhotra has called and documented the phenomenon of U Turn?
Elsewhere she states, “Hindus and Buddhists in the early period shared ideas so freely that it is impossible to say whether some of the central tenets of each faith came from one or the other (just as Picasso and Brasque worked so closely together that they sometimes signed one another’s paintings”(p.232). I would add Jains and Sikhs to this list. Indeed, all Indians need to take another look at their shared pluralistic heritage: both intellectual and sociological.
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
To: Shrinivas Tilak
Thank you very much for having taken the pains to respond to my query regarding Wendy’s (lack of) methodology. Given the uncertainty (not to say arbitrariness...) of our posts getting through to ‘Open RISA’, I would invite you to continue these threads at our Abhinavagupta forum:
Shri Ashok Chowgule, Dr. Jakob de Roover, and others who had contributed constructively are currently pursuing their exchanges there.
With best wishes,
From: S. Kalyanaraman
To: [Abhinava msg #1467]
Would deeply appreciate guidance and references to
literature on the following queries: Are there references to the practice of vrata (vow,
ascetic discipline—e.g. kamaDha ‘penance’
Prakrit) in regions outside Bharat, say, in
[Kalyan’s full original post at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Abhinavagupta/message/1467]
Why is there no Greek equivalent to
the notion of dharma?
maybe, because there were no brahmins to impose it on
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
Date: Fri Jan 23, 2004;
To: [Abhinava msg #1576]
Shubha Pathak is writing her doctorate under Wendy
Doniger (she’s her teaching assistant) at the
She presented the 2nd chapter of her dissertation in a talk entitled “Kuza and Lava versus Nala: When Poetic Rulers affirm or interrogate Dharma in the Sanskrit Epics” (4th Dec 03), by translating the term as “righteousness” of practices associated with varNa (caste), âzrama (station in life), gender and society as a whole. It’s worth noting that this is how the Bhagavad Gîtâ’s ‘situational ethics’ also defines ‘duty’ (as contrasted to Kant’s ‘moral imperative’), as was very well demonstrated by Prof. Lakshmi Kapani in her talk on this subject last summer in Paris at the International College of Philosophy. The term “poetic rulers” derives from the fact that Lava and Kuza, the sons of Lord Râma, also provide one of names for the wandering bards (kuzîlava - zûdra status in the Arthazâstra!) who spread the dharma by memorizing and reciting the epic. King Nala, in the Mahâbharata sub-narrative, is also transformed into a charioteer-bard (sûta), likewise an outcaste (apasada) because a product of mixed (brahmin/kSatriya) marriage ‘going against the grain’ (pratiloma). This relationship between royalty, bard and brahmin has been studied by Romila Thapar, who gave a fascinating series of talks on the subject at the Collège de France in summer 1989. She affirmed, for example, that kings whose ‘Aryan’ legitimacy was admitted tended to style themselves as ‘solar’ (sûrya-) descendants of Râma, whereas usurpers would rather trace their genealogy to the ‘moon’ (candra-) lineage (vamzî) deriving from Lord KRSNa (and, by association, all the irregularities of the MBh.)
In contrasting the two Hindu epics, Shubha dwelt at some length on the imperial role of the Azva-medha (‘horse sacrifice’) accomplished by Râma to consecrate his triumphant reign of virtue, whereas king YudhiSThira undertakes the same more as an expiation for release from the burden of all the preceding slaughter in the Mahâbhârata. Curiously enough, several others present, both student and faculty (including Wendy herself...), questioned how the Azvamedha could ever be understood as an expiation. I was able to chip in, finally, that at the end of his period of consecration (dîkSâ), the (would-be) emperor entered a pool of water wherein he transferred all his evil onto a (deformed brahmin) scapegoat (jumbaka, in whom Kuiper saw the ritual model of the vidûSaka); thereupon the rest of community would also plunge into the pool to wash away all their sins. Since this (avabhRtha) ritual is integral to the horse-sacrifice, it does indeed constitute an expiation for all the slaughter entailed by the (now successfully fulfilled) imperial ambitions. Wendy murmured in agreement as I was concluding (this is certainly not the first time she has endorsed my observations aloud in public...). I might add here that this holds true even for the RâmâyaNa, where the virtuous and exemplary Râma is (implicitly) expiating, not so much for his treacherous killing of the monkey-king Vâlin or for his ‘heartless’ banishment of his ‘unchaste’ wife Sîtâ, but for having slain RâvaNa. The jumbaka embodied brahmanicide, and this demon-king was, after all, a brahmin (a brahma-râkSasa?)
Homer’s heroes, even the ‘good’ guys, also commit
atrocities (if you recall what Achilles did to Hector’s body...) and perform
sacrifices to propitiate the gods, expiate their misdeeds and in
(expectation of) triumph (as Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his own daughter
Iphigenia for victory over Troy). So how come they have no dharma— neither in the epics nor much later in classical
I’m not sure if I’ve addressed your question (certainly not on vrata!) but perhaps these incomplete thoughts might be food for further thought...
P.S. I’ve copied Shubha on this post and, hopefully, you might hear from her in due course...
From: Mary Hicks
To: [Abhinava msg #1909]
You may be interested in participating in the featured interview with Dr. Wendy Doniger on a relatively new portal, swaveda:
Variants of Classical (Sanskrit) Hindu
Wendy Doniger’s research and teaching interests revolve around two basic areas, Hinduism and mythology. Her courses in mythology address themes in cross-cultural expanses; her courses in Hinduism cover a broad spectrum that, in addition to mythology, considers literature, law, gender, and ecology.
Among the many books published under her name are: [as Wendy O’Flaherty] The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley: University of California, 1976) and Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and [as Wendy Doniger] Splitting the Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press and University of London Press, 1999).
will answer your questions about Hindu Myths. Questions will be accepted until
From: Gautam Sen
To: [Abhinava msg #1912]
discussion seeks to understand why Indian studies in the West (especially the
[Gautam’s full article was posted in June 2004 at svAbhinava and is currently being discussed at Sulekha]
social and political churning that has been unfolding in contemporary
Author: Gautam Sen
Studying others, fbb
From: Frank Burch Brown
To: Sunthar Visuvalingam
I noticed, when I was a Visiting Fellow at
I have read enough of the discussions that you’ve
been circulating to see the sources of some of the concern about Western
(including North American) studies of Asian religions and of
At the same time, as you might expect, I imagine we
are both aware of much scholarship from the West that reflects a great
affection, even love, for things Indian--a love that I myself share in many respects.
Yes, that can also fall into Orientalist traps, including idealization and the
like. But it grieves and troubles me to see Western studies of
For instance, in the past few months I’ve read
large portions of J. Fuller’s *The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society
Obviously a Western “religious studies” approach does not always attempt to represent everything in exactly the manner that insiders to a given tradition would find congenial or would fully affirm. Christians have long noticed this aspect of the academic study of religion, even when Christianity is taught or critiqued in “neutral” academic terms. Christian traditionalists in particular strongly object to the way the Bible is typically taught in Western secular universities, for instance.
For these and other reasons, I believe it is indeed wise for religious groups to set up independent schools of religion in which their own religious tradition can be taught in a way that is highly sympathetic (even if not without critical awareness). I teach in a Christian seminary, after all!
But there needs to be space, also, for academic scholarship that is not committed automatically and in principle to the viewpoint of a particular religious tradition, or of some religious outlook, and that is not afraid to look into historical or other questions that most religious traditions ignore. I myself don’t insist that Christianity be taught or discussed by university scholars only in ways that traditional Christians of various persuasions would affirm. For one thing, Christians disagree strongly with other Christians! I do ask that the materials, cultures, and people under discussion be treated with respect and that the scholarly values dominating a given discussion not be treated as beyond question, themselves.
Sometimes, needless to say, Western religious scholars use techniques and approaches (e.g. Freudian or feminist) that are quite different from ones most congenial to Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs--or to Christians and Jews, for that matter. And sometimes, unfortunately, that is done in a way that is presumptuous and unnecessarily offensive or that distorts what is being studied.
The line of acceptably sympathetic interpretation is not invariable and distinct, however. I just read parts of M. Whitney Kelting, Singing to the Jinas: Jain Laywomen Mandal Singing and the Negotiations of Jain Devotion (Oxford UP 2001). Before publishing her study, the author shared openly her journals and writings with the Jain Laywomen whose practices she was studying (practices in which she was an invited participant). The Jain women apparently approved of her descriptions and interpretations. But they might never say, themselves, everything that she goes ahead and says about Jain men, for instance. Does that mean those things should just never be said? I don’t think so.
As scholars of religions other than our own, do we need to be silent if we can’t say something nice, or at least something neutral? In many contexts, yes!
But there are settings in which criticism—including mutal criticism—is called for. Rajiv. M. says many harshly critical things in regard to Western Abrahamic monotheistic traditions, for instance, and there is surely a place to raise such questions, and in both directions, though the tone could well be made more inviting of dialogue.
Whereas Western scholars in university settings generally resist criticizing the rituals and teachings of a given religious traditions, in the name of academic neutrality, they tend to forget their restraint when it comes to certain matters of social ethics (e.g. “caste”) or matters of gender (e.g. “patriarchy”). The often tacit assumption seems to be that people around the world ought to be in basic agreement on matters of social ethics and justice, even if their rituals and religious beliefs per se differ. Things are more complicated than that, aren’t they?
In any case, those in a position of political, economic, or ideological dominance, it seems to me, have a different set of responsibilities from those whose culture or people have been subjected to considerable exploitation and oppression or suppression. Western scholars have long been far too oblivious of that power difference and its implications—whether in their more traditional attacks on “idolatry” or in the more recent feminist attacks on the patriarchical patterns of Asian and African religions (as well as Western)—or (perhaps ironically) when it comes to attacking social structures perceived to be hierarchical and elitist. I’m not suggesting that no questions be raised, ethically and religiously, but that they be raised with awareness of different assumptions and contexts.
It may be a cliche to say, at this point, but it nonetheless seems highly regrettable that people so easily fall into the habit of comparing (and exaggerating) the worst features of the other side with the best features of their own side.
Actually, though it may seem immodest, I still want to commend some of the approaches to negotiating and transforming differences that I spell out (in terms of aesthetics, initially) in my discussion of “ecumenical taste.” That chapter, as you know, is found in my somewhat mischievously entitled *Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life“ (Oxford UP, 2000). Many of the same challenges that arise in differences over art and aesthetics also arise in the interaction of different cultures and religions.
With all good wishes,
Frank (Burch Brown)
Frederick Doyle Kershner Prof. of Religion and the Arts
Christian Theological Seminary
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
5.2.5 Americanization: ‘instant gratification’ and ‘enthusiastic’ study of texts and traditions
Classical Studies and Indology,
Prof. Michael Witzel,
As usual, your comments were very much appreciated. Despite their blatant contradiction with the assessment of Gautam Sen (who is admittedly not himself an Indologist and is still working on his book), it seems to me that there is much that could be said to substantiate either perspective. Until I’m able to find the time and occasion to take up some of these issues more systematically, and in a manner beneficial to all parties, I merely offer the above citation from Prof. Michael Witzel, who is clearly speaking from long experience with colleagues and students (in Germany, South Asia, Netherlands and the USA) on the quality of American Indology and how it reflects the surrounding cultural dynamics...
all the best,
P.S. Is Gautam’s perceived “Indological hostility to
From: Jack Hill
To: [Abhinava msg #1917]
Just a few brief comments on the current discussion:
As is well known, the BG was a comparatively late (tantric?) insertion into the text of the Mahabharata tradition. The Mahabharata is filled with marvelous teaching stories—no doubt inserted piece by piece at various times over the centuries into the text as well. From what I feel is a tantric point of view, Arjuna’s battle in the Gita is an inner conflict, a struggle against all his familiar old friends and family members: attachments, aversions, desires, etc. So it’s pointless to argue that it “justifies war.”
Mahabharata story as a whole, though, is another matter. There, so far as I’m familiar with it,
I recall hearing an interview with Ram Das (Alpert) some years ago where he said that Daniel Berrigan (if memory serves correctly) infuriated him by telling him the BG was “the most immoral book ever written.” (Berrigan was a Catholic priest.) Westerners just don’t get it. Like the obsession with tantric sex, which has little to do with tantra. Once a seeker asked my guru, Swami Muktananda, in a public satsang to explain tantric sexual practices as part of yoga. Muktananda replied that he had never heard of any such thing -- preposterously, of course, since such a master of tantra would certainly be well aware of the left-handed path. But a guru is not an educator; he doesn’t explain things: every word he utters has only the aim of bringing the seeker closer to God. His reply, by the way, had that effect on me when I heard it, as it forever banished from my mind any curiosity I might have had toward the subject. (I should add that on another occasion, when Muktananda was asked about the Holocaust, he shocked most of his listeners by stating that, karmically, it had to happen—somewhat more difficult to accept, but surely in the true tradition of the Gita, IMHO.)
and scholars mostly have their own agenda, which often have little to do with the materials under
discussion, and I suspect that a certain fear of the mysterious and the irrational (may I be forgiven for suggesting “meta-rational” as a more accurate
term?) inhibits them in certain fatal ways. Once my wife (a German) was doing advance work in
I submit that the opposite would be true.
Just a comment about Ganesh: I suspect that some of the legendary material that purports to explain the origins of his characteristics is the result of what Robert Graves called misinterpretation of icons. (Example: an image of a nude man and woman exchanging the gift of a fruit—is it Paris and Helen, or Adam and Eve?) I don’t think anyone today can determine the truth of what is so long lost in the mists of time, and frankly I couldn’t care less. All that matters to me and my wife is that we love to offer our household Ganesh flowers and sweets and do puja to Him. Instead of trying to figure out how it works, dear scholars, just try it for yourselves and see what it does for you.
Submitted in love and respect... Shatrajit
From: Gautam Sen
To: [Abhinava msg #1918]
Thank you. I am learning a lot about a field that is my outside area of expertise, but interests me deeply. I hope I will have enough Sanskrit a year from now to profit more from the many knowledgeable people who contribute to this and other forums.
From: Jack Hill
To: [Abhinava msg #1920]
My own studies in Sanskrit have been limited to making an attempt to understand technical terms of spirituality, especially Kashmir Shaivism, that have no exact—nor even nearly exact—counterpart in Western languages. Still, I believe I have benefited greatly even from this small effort. For example, prakasha and vimarsha -- what a revealing concept! Oh, would that I had the time to make a real study of this marvelous language.
From: Vishal S. Agarwal
To: [Abhinava msg #2448]
Shame on you, Cynthia Humes!
Cynthia Humes’ so-called response was a disgrace! She was introduced by Rita Sherma as Rajiv’s dialogic partner (I am unsure what the word was but it meant partner.) However, there was nothing dialogical about her approach. Contrary to academic standards, Cynthia Humes did not say one word about Rajiv’s talk or his insightful thesis. She spent her entire talk doing personal anthropology and psychoanalysis on Rajiv and about Infinity Foundation.
If Humes had planned to criticize Infinity Foundation then they should have asked Rajiv to first give a talk on Infinity Foundation and then Humes could have responded to that talk critically. That would have been the academic procedure. But Humes simply ignored Rajiv’s talk, which he had sent to her in advance as per Rita Sherma’s procedures. Humes trivialized him by completely ignoring his scholarship.
Worse still, she accused Rajiv of giving money and forcing scholars to write in compliance with his own ideologies. But Humes failed to mention even one concrete example of this. How could an academic scholar have such disregard for empirical evidence?
fact, I can say from personal experience that I attended a successful conference in Delhi last year
on Indic religions that was sponsored
by Infinity Foundation in which there was far more diversity of voices than I saw at AAR.
There were more anti-Hindu left
wing voices than pro-Hindu. It was organized by CSDS in
Humes must provide evidence to support her charge or be honest enough to retract!
white people simply cannot tolerate the sight of non whites becoming empowered. Humes should also do
an inquiry about how her own institution
and others including
Humes came across like an amateur and not in the same league as Rajiv intellectually. Maybe she was fighting this complex. Later someone whispered that she was Rita Sherma’s PhD advisor and hence Sherma could have done it as a favor to invite her. I have not verified these facts. If true, this would be evidence in support of the cartel theory of academic religious studies.
Rajiv made a strong comeback in later discussions but Rita Sherma gave him only 3 minutes to counter Humes 30 minutes of attacks.
Rajiv stated that just as scholars without initiation in the tantric tradition claim legitimacy in producing knowledge, so also Rajiv as outsider to the academy has the right to produce knowledge about religion. This powerful point was brought home in the minds of many Indians in the audience because they felt that his talk was a cut above all the rest on that panel.
One Indian named Neela in the audience spoke up bravely that there was western colonial hegemony still in this field. Dr. Melukota spoke up in very strong support for Rajiv. On a previous panel he gave a detailed example of how the Sanskrit word `bhaga’ has been distorted by scholars to make fun of Hindu texts. Rajiv used this to explain how power is being abused.
Humes failed to recognize Rajiv as one of the top public intellectuals for the Indian diaspora today. This is his well earned success because his articles are more popular than any other writers today. He must have worked hard at it. I have been reading them for 5 years now and the fan club is growing. Humes tried to dismiss Rajiv’s success as being bought with money. But nobody pays anything to the 10,000 to 20,000 Sulekha readers who read his articles. They read them despite being so long because they like them. Indian readers have spoken in his support, which makes the high brow Humes angry and she is trying to dismiss his legitimacy as a writer with important things to say.
Rajiv’s success is built on his intellect, his marketing savvy to build readership, and his courage to speak up. Humes made a thinly veiled threat of lawsuits against Rajiv.
Humes tried to analyze Rajiv as entrepreneur and philanthropist using simplistic text book quotes but she has no real experience either as entrepreneur or as philanthropist. Also it was based on many factual errors on what Rajiv is trying to do and her advice to him as if he should take her seriously.
It became clear that Cynthia Humes tried to score points with her academy by attacking Rajiv personally. Some persons in the hallway were saying that she is a Wendy’s Child and got her PhD under Wendy Doniger. This could not be confirmed.
it has backfired in my eyes. As I reflect further on this experience upon my return to
Humes’ behavior has removed all my remaining doubts about the importance of Rajiv Malhotra’s work.
I withhold my name for sake of personal security.
VISHAL’S COMMENTS: It may be recalled that Cynthia Humes was the lady who led the hysterical attack and threats against MLBD when the publisher withdrew Courtright’s filthy book on Ganesha last year. She wrote to me that she is willing to discuss the book with me but after I wrote (with Kalavai Venkat) a critique of the book, she shied away from any discussion (despite 3 reminders) and said that she has no time. Also, I have been informed that it was not Mr Melkote (as the article above states) but Dr B V K Shastry who presented the paper on ‘bhaga’.
From: Rajiv Malhotra
To: [Abhinava msg #2449]
Since I am named in this thread, I should give my side. Some minute details in the posting cited by Vishal are inaccurate, but the sentiment of frustration expressed in it is justified, and its overall depiction of what happened is fair.
I have requested DANAM for a copy of the audio recording of my session so that I may quote accurately, but have not yet received it. After her ambush, Cynthia Humes let me have her paper for a brief moment, on which her response was typed, but quickly took it back, insisting that she will send me a copy which I have yet to receive. Therefore, what I say below is from recollection only.
First of all, I respect Humes and her right to
defend Doniger from whom she got her PhD in
I also understand Rita Sherma as panel chair ‘sucking up’ to Humes, from whom she received her own Phd, as this type of reciprocity is at the very heart of my argument about academic cartels. In other words, this is normal! (Andy Fort said in his talk something to the effect that Rajiv Malhotra has not supplied ‘proof of the cartel.’ So Andy, I hope you are tuned in here: THE VERY PANEL YOU WERE ON GIVES YOU DATA TO PONDER.)
I felt and expressed openly the following disappointment about the panel administration:
1) Several weeks before the event when I sent Rita my original talk’s slides, she suggested that I should change my talk which was about Geopolitics and Hinduism, so as to make it ‘constructive’. I replaced the original talk with an ENTIRELY NEW ONE, which is essentially the thesis of my latest Sulekha column on the Myth of Hindu Sameness. She also called me to suggest that from my new talk I should drop the name of one prominent scholar whom I was criticizing, as that would be counter to the spirit of constructive dialog. I instantly complied and my talk had NO names of any RISA scholar whatsoever, in the spirit of the panel chair’s request. However, she clearly failed to apply similar policies on Humes, whose ENTIRE talk was about me personally. I would have had no problem with an open discussion on geopolitics by BOTH sides, but why this sleigh of hand?
2) Given that Humes wanted to attack Infinity Foundation and me personally, the protocol of the academic process requires that FIRST I SHOULD HAVE GIVEN A TALK ON THE FOUNDATION AND MY WORK, AND THEN ANYONE COULD HAVE BEEN ASKED TO GIVE A REJOINDER. In other words, logic suggests that first you let someone present whatever he has to say and then criticize it all you want. But Humes’ attack was baseless and filled with false premises and assumptions - working backward from conclusions she wanted to reach. One of the hallmarks of the cartel is the use of FALSE PURVA-PAKSHA OF THE OPPONENT. This habit comes from the way native informants are not treated as equals. Whites gaze and non-whites are the ones gazed at. (Those non-whites who submit to this establishment can win various levels of white gazing privileges, i.e. join the sepoy army.)
3) If Humes did what she did regardless of Rita’s wishes, then Rita should have let Humes go first on the panel, and given me the chance to rejoinder in defense. (Humes talk was known to Rita in advance but not known to me.) The way they designed the ambush was to let me go first and speak on a serious thesis that was 100% free from RISA politics, and then to let Humes get 30 minutes to make her smart-ass remarks about me. After that, Rita gave me ‘3 minutes to respond.’ What a joke - 3 minutes to point out the tons of errors in Humes’ 30 minute prepared speech! The sequence should have been changed and this would have alleviated a part of the problem.
So it was a three-part ambush plan: (1) encouraging me to change my talk’s theme to be non-critical of RISA; (2) letting Humes go after me personally; (3) and fixing the sequence so as to prevent me from giving a full scale rejoinder to Humes (which I was quite capable of giving had they allotted time to me).
Hopefully, Rita won enough brownie points. But I am disappointed because over the past few years I praised her as a very solid Hindu scholar and have admired her innovative approaches to constructive scholarship. She has given me considerable input in my writings in the past, for which I shall remain grateful. I cannot really blame her for being practical minded in pusuing her ambitions. The system is the way it is and we can simply step back and reflect. They studied us well and know how to buy us off, where our vulnerabilities are, etc.
It was rumored that DANAM is being penetrated by
RISA going forward, so as to neutralize its independence. In exchange, DANAM
will enter the club as ‘legitimate,’ the same way as the Hindu-Christian Dialog
This contrasts with Gandhi’s satyagraha strategy in which he refused to sell out to the empire of his time. Instead, he used their attacks against him to expose that the system was not conducting itself in a civilized manner while justifying its existence on bringing civilization to the natives. Ultimately, it was the public exposure of this duplicity (for which Gandhi paid a heavy price personally) that caused the empire to crumble. Once the natives stopped giving it credibility the empire had no power.
Similarly, these very scholars claim to promote human rights, objectivity in scholarship, their ‘love for Indian culture,’ avoidance of ad hominen attacks, and intellectual ‘freedom’. Yet they violate these very standards in their own conduct and work. This hypocrisy is what my first talk would have proven with HARD DATA/EXAMPLES, that I decided (under advice from Rita) to not present. The legitimacy of these scholars stands in question as they contradict their own professed norms. Hence they intensify their personal attacks against anyone who exposes this and who they fail to buy off.
One scholar visiting from
I am reminded of the thesis of Marimba Ani,
referenced in my Whiteness paper on Sulekha, i.e. that what the West calls
ethics is ‘rhetorical ethics’ only. Ani explains that their ethical theories
are like PR for others but not for themselves. (They have subconscious filters
to block off the ethics as lived reality.) How else could
Similarly, much of what the academy has proclaimed as ‘intellectual freedom’, ‘objectivity’, ‘fairness’, ‘respect for the culture being studied’, etc. is merely rhetorical. It is immaterial to them whether their peers follow these norms themselves, provided the peers have sufficient symbolic capital and soft power in the knowledge marketplace.
I hope the responses from Humes and Sherma will come in open forums such as this, where both sides have equal access to post their positions, and NOT IN CLOSED FORUMS OR THOSE CONTROLLED BY THEIR PEERS. If they respond in the tradition of secrecy or in forums where I cannot get EQUAL space to give my side, it would merely expose the hypocrisy of their rhetorical ethics.
Finally, I offer dialog in earnest, as I imagined Rita had planned which unfortunately did not materialize for whatever reasons. It is never too late to start fresh and see one another’s positions with an open mind. That is the spirit of dharma as represented in the very name of DANAM.
I have proposed DANAM to host DEBATES on specific issues that are causing tension, and to moderate these debates to ensure equal rights of free speech. Let us see if they accept this.
From: Rajiv Malhotra
To: [Abhinava msg #2450]
Compare the two divergent accounts of the tensions between Hindus and the academic scholars who claim to be ‘objectively’ studying Hinduism. One is a few weeks old by a Diaspora Hindu man named Narayanan Komeranth, and the other appeared TODAY in the powerful U of Chicago’s magazine where Wendy Doniger’s rules as Queen.
This is how a Hindu Diaspora man sees things in great detail, covering many facets of the complex situation very clearly: http://www.indiacause.com/columns/OL_040601.htm
This is how Doniger’s powerful PR machinery has hit again: http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0412/features/index.shtml
(Someone pointed out that Vijay Prashad has positioned himself as the high profile Indian that the West can parade at interviews whenever a Desi [‘native’ Indian – SV] proxy is required, whereas to young Indian idealists he still claims to be against Imperialism!)
Finally, here is Arvind Sharma’s take on the whole affair:
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
To: [Abhinava msg #2454]
Dear Amy [M. Braverman],
Malhotra has brought to our attention (below) your recent write-up on “The
interpretation of gods: Do leading religious scholars err in their analysis of
Hindu texts?” at the
Since you’ve thought it fit to include in your feature a hyperlink to a critique by Rajiv of ‘Wendyism’ at my svAbhinava website, I would request you to substitute the existing link with one to the parent frame-set (with numerous links) of “What is the ‘political’ agenda behind American studies of South Asian Tantra?” so that visitors may also have the option of accessing an increasing number of related dialogues and articles:
Moreover, not having had the privilege of being interviewed for the feature (if I’m not mistaken, Rajiv would have forwarded you my name and contact info...), I would also request you to add a hyperlink within your feature to the debate around Wendy’s work that I’m currently compiling:
“Wendy Doniger and Interpretation of Hindu Mythology:
that attempts to replace her pronouncements on Lord Krishna, hermeneutics of Indian representations, and influence in academia, within the context of not just the current ‘Hindu versus WASP’ controversy but also the ideological underpinnings of the War on Terror. My request might make more sense if you consider that I had recommended Wendy to be a pre-publication reviewer of my Ph.D. thesis (on humor!). I’m still compiling, editing and reformatting the digest for easier access and greater intelligibility, but our readers might appreciate the head-start....
With best wishes,
From: Amy Braverman
To: Sunthar Visuvalingam
Thank you for writing. The original link has been replaced with the one you provided. Because we're only linking to items mentioned directly in the article, we won't be able to link to your discussion, as you suggested.
From: Sunthar Visuvalingam
Thank you for having replaced the hyperlink to Rajiv's critique of David White's book, for I think it's important that visitors immediately realize that svAbhinava is not (just) another 'Hindutva' site. Your reason for not adding the link to the debate around Wendy at svAbhinava makes sense. However, I'm making that debate along with your own feature available from links added to the head of Rajiv's review. If you don't mind, I'm also appending this exchange to the end of Part I of that dialogue so that readers may be reassured that we are in agreement regarding this.
P.S. Given the circumstances, context, venue and nature of your feature, I found it to be relatively balanced...those really interested in the (if there is any one such...) 'truth' behind such controversial issues can easily do their homework by following up on the various links provided.
[End of Part I]