“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 …”
– Wendy Doniger, Professor of History of Religions, University of Chicago.
Quoted in Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 November, 2000.[ i ]
In my previous Sulekha column[ ii ], I pointed out that whereas elite colleges in the West teach great respect for Greek and other Western Classics as being the bedrock of their civilization, it has become fashionable for elitist (i.e. Westernized) Indians to denigrate their own Indian Classics. Furthermore, these Indians see their education in Western literature as validating their Western identity (falsely equating modernization with Westernization), and go out of their way in putting down their Indian heritage.
The present essay deals with yet another important discipline, namely, Religious Studies, which is growing rapidly in the US and in many other countries. Unfortunately, this is not so in India, where a peculiar brand of “secularism” has prevented academic Religious Studies from entering the education system in a serious manner. Therefore, most Indians do not have the necessary competence in this academic field to be able to understand how it differs from both (i) religious instruction that one expects to find in a temple, church or mosque, and (ii) political or popular ideological depictions of religion in the media.
Article 28.1 of The Constitution of India reads: “No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.” However, the scholarship and teaching about religion in the academic field of Religious Studies would not violate the intent of this Article, because academic Religious Studies does not preach (i.e. does not “instruct”) any religion, and nor endorse or negate any religion’s claims. Rather, it teaches about the truth-claims[ iii ] made by a given religion, along with its history, its sociology, and so forth. This is an important separation enshrined in the US Constitution also. Nevertheless, “Indian secularism” has prevented the population from becoming educated about the diversity of religions so central to Indian life. This vacuum of authentic knowledge has been filled by unscrupulous elements in many instances.
This essay’s thrust revolves around the portrayal of India’s religions in the West. Being unable to appreciate how and why academic Religious Studies is different from other activities that might appear similar, most Indians are ignorant of the abuses being caused in the West as a result of (a) the negative stereotyping of Indic traditions, and (b) the misappropriation from Indic traditions while erasing the sources.
Here is a typical anecdote that illustrates my frustration: I sent an article to an Indian journal about how Hinduism was (mis)portrayed in American academe. The editor was very interested. But the reviewers’ comments were incredibly naïve about the basic structure and nature of the field of Religious Studies — one reviewer was confusing academic Religious Studies with something that Hindu temples or ashrams in USA were already teaching, while the other reviewer wondered why this field was so important in a secular age! When I showed it to Western friends in academics, they found this Indian thinking amusing.
As with any large academic field, Religious Studies in the US is highly organized, with prestigious journals, chairs and programs of study. To carry out the studies and research, there is a well-defined system that uses the tools and methods that have come to be known as “hermeneutics”. This is the theory of interpretation, especially of religious texts, using a process of deriving new interpretations from a body of text or knowledge, so that (hopefully) our insights about the text or subject keep growing.
To control and regulate this field pertaining to Indian religions, there is the association known as RISA (Religions In South Asia). RISA is a unit within The American Academy of Religion (AAR), which is the official organization of academic scholars of Religious Studies in the Western world.
Around fifty years ago, there was a partition of the guild of scholars who studied religion, and two organizations were created: AAR and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). AAR and SBL maintain very close relations and influences, and hold their annual conferences jointly. While SBL members study and promote the insiders’ view of Judeo-Christianity, AAR members are supposed to pursue the objective view from outside a given tradition and to not promote anything. However, as I have noted many times, outsiders to Hinduism are insiders to Judeo-Christianity, and/or to Western Feminism, and/or to Marxism, and/or to other ideologies, and hence they are not “neutral” as advertised.
With a membership of over 10,000 scholars — and growing — the AAR has enormous clout over the future direction of Religious Studies, and indirectly, over the humanities at large.
Because the depictions of India in the West are inseparable from depictions of India’s religious life (something that Indian secularists have tried to wish away unsuccessfully), the work done by RISA scholars has implications that go well beyond the discipline’s boundaries. Religion is prominently featured in South Asian Studies, Asian Studies, International Studies, Women’s Studies, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, History, Literature, and Politics, and indirectly also influences Journalism, Film, and so forth. Therefore, the utter ignorance of Indians regarding such a discipline is a major gap that deserves attention and remedy.
Meanwhile, under Western control, Hinduism Studies has produced ridiculous caricatures that could easily be turned into a Bollywood movie or a TV serial. This Lila[ iv ] of the inner workings of RISA is the subject of this essay. (Readers who are unfamiliar with RISA and AAR should read this essay as a general account of Western academic engagement and control over India-related studies. While the examples given are RISA-specific, the message applies more broadly.)
Act 1 of the RISA Lila deals with the eroticisation of Hinduism by Wendy Doniger[ v ], who is undoubtedly the most powerful person in academic Hinduism Studies today, and by others inspired by her. She is a former President of the American Academy of Religion, now leads Religious Studies at the University of Chicago, chairs many academic and powerful bodies, has two PhDs (from Harvard and Oxford) and is a prolific author. She was also a past President of the very influential Association of Asian Studies.
The most important leverage she has is that she has given more students their Ph.Ds in Hinduism than any other person in the world and has successfully placed these former students in high-leverage academic jobs throughout the Western world, to carry the torch of her theories and principles of researching Hinduism. There is no place one can go to in this academic discipline without running into the effect of her influence, through her large cult of students, who glorify her in exchange for her mentorship.
The BBC-linked site introduces her as follows: “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…” (For a picture of Wendy Doniger, see the footnote.[ vi ])
In the Annual Convention of the AAR in 2000, Wendy (as she is affectionately known) was felicitated by her fans at a special session in her honor. She has enjoyed building her franchise and sees her own immortality through it[ vii ]. One speaker after another spoke about her great accomplishments. Many persons from the audience joined in — presumably to ensure their tenure, or job, or promotion. Then I raised my hand, and when Wendy acknowledged me, I stood up and asked: “Since you have psychoanalyzed Hinduism and created a whole new genre of scholarship, do you think it would be a good idea for someone to psychoanalyze you, because an insight into your subconscious would make your work more interesting and understandable?”
There was both uneasy tension and laughter in the audience, and she replied that there was nothing new that any psychoanalyst would find about her, because she has not hidden anything. I stood up again, and stated that most clients also tell their psychoanalysts that they have nothing hidden in their mental basement, but that such clients are precisely the most interesting persons to psychoanalyze. She laughed again, took it well, and said, “You got me on this one.” I concluded with a remark that I would predict that research on her own private psychology would get done in the next several years, and that it would become important some day to psychoanalyze many other Western scholars also, since they superimpose their personal and cultural conditioning on their research about other peoples.
This Act 1 of the RISA Lila begins such an analysis. I wish to clarify that it is not intended to be a generalization applicable to all members of RISA. It deals specifically with one important phenomena in Religious Studies, that I have defined as Wendy’s Child Syndrome. The structure of this Act 1 is to first summarize four examples of recent RISA scholarship of this new genre that is being championed by Wendy’s Children[ viii ]:
1. Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Hindu saint, has been declared by these scholars as being a sexually-abused homosexual, and it has become “academically established” by Wendy Doniger’s students that Ramakrishna was a child molester, and had also forced homosexual activities upon Vivekananda. Furthermore, it has become part of this new “discovery” that Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences, and indeed those of Hindu mystics in general, are pathological sexual conditions that need to be psychoanalyzed as such. Furthermore, these scholars have concluded that the entire Hindu society needs to be psychoanalyzed in terms of sexual deviance, in order to understand modern Indian society and politics objectively.
- The Hindu Goddess is described by these scholars as a sex maniac, with a variety of pathological conditions. Western scholars are busy debating which kinds of pathologies best apply in specific instances, and are hard at work to capture supporting data in the backwaters of Indian society.
Other conclusions by these well-placed scholars include: Ganesha’s trunk symbolizes a “limp phallus”; his broken tusk is a symbol for the castration-complex of the Hindu male; his large belly is a proof of the Hindu male’s enormous appetite for oral sex. Shiva, is interpreted as a womanizer, who encourages ritual rape, prostitution and murder, and his worship is linked to violence and destruction.
Hindus are being profiled by these scholars, potentially setting them up for denial of the same human rights as the “civilized West.” For instance, anthropologists have concluded that nursing Hindu mothers do not bond with their babies the way white women do, that Hindus lack a sense of individuality because of their inability to perceive separation in space or time, and that the Mahabharata is best seen as Krishna’s Genocide.
After a brief review of this “scholarly” literature, there awaits a major bombshell in this essay — reasonable doubts on whether these acclaimed scholars properly know the Indian languages in which they claim to be working.
After this background, I go on to define and analyze Wendy’s Child Syndrome, and analyze the anger my investigative research has triggered. The essay concludes with responses to criticisms that I have received from certain RISA members who commented on the draft of this “scandalous” report.
Before you dismiss the significance of the RISA Lila to the Indian community at large, please bear in mind that college professors write most of the school textbooks in the US. These scholars’ writings are also used to teach the next generation of journalists, political leaders, and our own kids when they leave home and go to college. Wendy Doniger and her Children contribute to many articles on Hinduism and India in widely used resources such as Microsoft’s Encarta and other encyclopedias. Therefore, if you wish to get to the bottom of figuring out how and why the American mainstream misunderstands India so pathologically, RISA is certainly one of the places to investigate.
I hope this essay begins a feedback loop to educate the Indian community, which is the subject of RISA’s work, but which has so far been kept in the dark concerning what is being written and said behind its back.
Target: Sri Ramakrishna
Introducing One Wendy’s Child:
As a student of Wendy Doniger at University of Chicago, Jeffrey Kripal did research on Sri Ramakrishna for his Ph.D. dissertation. He visited the Ramakrishna Mission for information and discussions on this research, and they helped him openly and enthusiastically. As one of the sisters of the Mission puts it, “He seems to be such a nice and endearing young man that anybody would trust his intentions.” However, contrary to well-accepted academic ethics and common decency, he did not give the Mission’s experts any chance to review his dissertation’s draft in order to make sure that there were no factual inaccuracies in it.
The Ramakrishna Mission scholars found out about Kripal’s scandalous conclusions only years later, after his book had come out and had immediately won enormous acclaim from Wendy Doniger’s club. The book published by him on this work, titled Kali’s Child[ ix ], won him the first book award by the AAR, a job at Harvard and a prestigious academic position at RiceUniversity. Encyclopedia Britannica listed his book as the top choice for reading about Ramakrishna. While the entire thesis was based on alleged misinterpretations of Bengali writings about the life of Ramakrishna (see details below), none of the persons who finally signed off on his PhD dissertation, or who were on the AAR Book Award Committee, or who glorified and endorsed his book, are, to the best of my knowledge, Bengalis with a familiarity with cultural nuances that are at stake here. Based on information given to me, and subject to being verified and corrected, the sole Bengali expert left before the conclusion of the project. But my main point is more general: If this Ph.D. dissertation (or book) had been based on sources in Hebrew or Greek — in short, had it been in the Bible or early Christianity fields – would it have passed? The standards that prevail in those fields are indeed rigorous. This needs to be independently evaluated by someone in the field of Bible/early Church. Of course, as a fringe thesis, many things could be approved. But would an equivalent thesis, based mainly on Freudian psychoanalysis, be supported to a similar extent in the mainstream academy, if it were about the Bible? That should be the benchmark, and that should have been how such a bold new hermeneutics should have been academy-tested before attempting it on any far away neocolonized culture whose direct representatives were not even part of the process. In short, is this new fashionable hermeneutics of eroticisation of spirituality a form of Eurocentrism being projected upon “others”?
I started to complain that RISA had prematurely and incorrectly passed sweeping judgments on Ramakrishna, without even a proper representation of the opposing point of view (which happened to be the view of those who know Ramakrishna best). This seemed to me to be a blatant violation of academic due process and ethical norms. However, I was told many things by the chowkidars and sepoys of the academic fortress, that bordered on deception and intimidation.
First, I was told that Kripal is suffering from depression because of “threats” he received from critics, and that he regrets having written the book, and wishes to forget it completely. I found just the opposite to be true: Kripal very much enjoys the controversy as a way to advance academically and, when asked point-blank to produce any evidence of “threats,” he slips his way out of it.
Second, I was advised in person, by emails, and via other associates, that if I criticized Wendy, I would get personally attacked and blackballed, and my projects would be boycotted. Guess what? This intimidation is precisely what motivated me, even more enthusiastically, to continue my research into this incestuous cult. I felt like the investigative reporter who is on to something big. I wondered: why would they not take my critical investigations in their stride, given how they pride themselves on claims of being open-minded?
While at first the Ramakrishna Mission was reluctant to battle against the academic establishment on these blatant misportrayals, one of its monks, Swami Tyagananda, started to take the matter seriously. But this happened only after Kripal’s thesis began to devastate Ramakrishna’s reputation in the mainstream, including in American schools. This led Swami Tyagananda to write his 130-page rebuttal, that lists many serious errors in Kripal’s work[ x ]. Kripal turned down my suggestion to include a summary of Tyagananda’s rebuttal at the end of his book, in a new edition, and cited all sorts of technical and scholarly reasons that are illogical.[ xi ]
After summarizing a few of Kripal’s glaring errors of scholarship below, I shall explain why such bogus scholarship, especially since it gets legitimized and popularized by sheer mafia-like politics, is very dangerous at many different levels.
How to Fabricate a Best-Seller:
This section summarizes some of the errors in Kali’s Child. The reader gets a good idea of the kind of scholarship at work.
1) Lack of required language skills:
Swami Tyagananda and many other Bengali scholars have had extensive discussions with Kripal, and they have little doubt that he simply does not know the Bengali language in which he claims to have read the documents on Sri Ramakrishna’s life, these being the documents that Kripal cites as his references. When spoken to in Bengali, he does not understand, and when asked something about Bengali directly, he cannot respond. Swami Tyagananda explains:[ xii ]
“Kripal’s conclusions come via faulty translations, a willful distortion and manipulation of sources, combined with a remarkable ignorance of Bengali culture. The derisive, non-scholarly tone with which he discussed Ramakrishna did not help either… Kripal’s ignorance of Bengali culture jumps right off the page. Many of the author’s misrepresentations are due to a simple lack of familiarity with Bengali attitudes and customs… [Furthermore,] it’s painfully clear that he also has little knowledge of Sanskrit…”
Prof. Narasingha Sil is a historian who is a Bengali language expert. He is not associated with the Ramakrishna Mission, and does not regard himself as a religious person. Here is his independent assessment:[ xiii ]
“Jeffrey is very adept at using Bengali-English dictionaries and picking the most appropriate synonyms of words (disregarding the primary, secondary, tertiary meanings) he feels could make his point… [He] is unable to converse in Bengali (but very prompt at using dictionaries)… In order to fit the square peg of a Tantrika Ramakrishna into the round hole of a homosexual Paramahansa, Kripal manufactures evidence by distorting the meaning of sources.”
2) Misinterpreting Tantra:
Kripal’s central thesis is summarized in his own words as follows: “Ramakrishna was a conflicted, unwilling, homoerotic Tantrika[xiv]… Tantra’s heterosexual assumptions seriously violated the structure of his own homosexual desires. His female Tantric guru and temple boss may have forced themselves … on the saint… but Ramakrishna remained… a lover not of sexually aggressive women or even of older men but of young, beautiful boys.[ xv ]”
Responding to this charge, Swami Tyagananda replies: “What is Kripal’s understanding of the word, Tantrika?” He says it is a term associated with “magical power, strangeness, seediness, and sex.” He dismisses the “philosophical expositions” of Tantra as inauthentic because they are “designed to rid Tantra of everything that smacked of superstition, magic, or scandal.”[ xvi ]
But given this predisposition, Kripal insists: “Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences were constituted by mystico-erotic energies that he neither fully accepted nor understood.”[ xvii ]
Let us examine how Kripal develops his claims.
3) Superimposing psychological pathologies upon Ramakrishna, with no basis:
Kripal posits with supreme confidence, but with no evidence whatsoever, some rather sweeping assertions about Ramakrishna, by merely superimposing generalizations out of some introductory textbook on psychology. He proclaims:
“The literature on sexual trauma suggests that individuals who have experienced abuse often become adept at altering their state of consciousness …lose control of their bodily, and especially their gastrointestinal functions, experience visions and states of possession, become hypersensitive to idiosyncratic stimuli (like latrines), symbolically re-enact the traumatic events, live in a state of hyperarousal …become hypersexual in their language or behavior, develop hostile feelings towards mother figures, fear adult sexuality, and often attempt suicide. This list reads like a summary of Ramakrishna’s religious life.”
However, as Swami Tyagananda responds:
“None of the symptoms enumerated in the “literature on sexual trauma” is present in Ramakrishna’s life. But since Kripal has approached his subject with a predetermined verdict, he resorts to specious reasoning in order to come up with the judgment he has in mind. Ramakrishna has “pronounced homosexual tendencies,” ergo he must have suffered childhood sexual trauma, ergo he must re-enact the traumatic events. This exercise in weak-link logic is reminiscent of kangaroo courts where the prisoner is convicted first and then the “evidence” is manufactured at a more convenient time.”[ xviii ]
4) Mistranslating “lap” as “genitals,” and later as “defiled sexual space”:
In the first edition of Kripal’s book, the Bengali word for “lap” was translated as “on the genitals.” In the second edition, Kripal changes it somewhat: “It is clear that Ramakrishna saw ‘the lap’ as normally defiled sexual space.” [ xix ]
“Why does the author consider the lap (kol) to be ‘normally defiled’? In Indian culture – and Bengali culture in particular – the lap has an extremely positive and warm maternal association. For instance, the national anthem of Bangladesh, written by Tagore, contains the following line: “Takhon khela dhula sakal phele, O Ma, tomar, kole chute ashi”. Translation: ‘After the day’s play is over, O Mother, I run back to your lap.’”
5) Mistranslating “head” as “phallus”:
Kripal justifies his translation that “head= phallus” in Hindu texts, because, according to him, “The head in the mystical physiology of yoga and Tantra [is] the ultimate goal of one’s semen and so an appropriate symbol for the phallus.”[ xx ]
6) Mistranslating “touching softly” as “sodomy”:
Based on his mistranslation of “softly touching” as being synonymous with sodomy, Kripal claims that Ramakrishna was “uncontrollably rubbing sandal-paste on the penises of boys.”[ xxi ]
Tyagananda explains: “I must admit that when I read Kripal’s interpretation of “touching softly” (aste aste aparsha korchhen) as attempted sodomy I could only laugh.” In Indian culture, elders lovingly pat and caress children out of affection. There is nothing sexual in it. Perhaps, the scholar is superimposing his own culture’s coldness towards kids.
7) Mistranslating “tribhanga” as “cocked hips”:
The Bengali text used by Kripal refers to the term “tribhanga”, the characteristic curved pose that is seen in Indian sculpture and Indian classical dance (tribhanga = Sanskrit ‘ three bends’). This is also Krishna’s common pose with the body bent in three places — at the knee, waist and elbow — with flute in hand. A common expression used for Lord Krishna in the Bhakti poetry is ‘tribhangi-laal’.
However, Kripal translates this pose as “cocked hips” and uses this to conclude that “stunned by the cocked hips of the boy, Ramakrishna falls into samadhi.”[ xxii ] This is Kripal’s “scholarly proof” that Ramakrishna’s mystical states were homoerotic!
Since Krishna is commonly depicted as bent in three places, with flute in hand, it would follow from Kripal’s psychoanalysis that any Krishna devotee’s love for his form is a sign of the devotee’s homosexual arousal by Krishna’s “cocked hips.”
8) Kripal’s imagination runs wild:
Referring to Ramakrishna’s meeting with a member of the Naga sect of sanyasins, Kripal simply assumes that a lot was happening about which there is no record whatsoever:
“[W]hat it must have been like for Ramakrishna, a homosexually oriented man, to be shut away for days in a small hut with another, stark-naked man. Vedanta instruction or not, it was this man’s nudity, and more especially, his penis, that normally caught Ramakrishna’s attention. How could it not?”[ xxiii ]
9) Mistranslating “vyakulata” to give it a sexual spin:
Regarding the Bengali word “vyakulata,” Tyagananda confirms that “there is nothing in the word to suggest ‘desire’, which, typically for Kripal, carries a sexual connotation… To load the Bengali words heavily with sexual innuendo is to completely distort the meaning of the text.” Yet, Kripal mistranslates this word to conclude: “Ramakrishna’s anxious desire was often directed to his young male disciples.”[ xxiv ]
10) Mistranslating “uddipana” to give it erotic meaning:
Another Bengali word distorted by Kripal is “uddipana.” According to Tyagananda, the word’s meaning is “enkindling” or “lightening up.” But Kripal arbitrarily gives it the meaning of homoerotic excitation, in his translation: “Ramakrishna turns to the youth and says: ‘Please don’t leave today. When I look at you, I get all excited.’”[ xxv ]
11) Special effects thrown in:
To spice up his research with erotic special effects, as if writing for a Bollywood screenplay, Kripal inserts the phrase “his nearly naked body” while referring to the Lilaprasanga. However, Swami Tyagananda writes that, after carefully examining the entire Lilaprasanga text, he can say that “nowhere in the Lilaprasanga is there even a mention of the boy’s nakedness.” Similarly, since Kripal wants to make the claim that the temple manager “sexually forced himself upon Ramakrishna,” he dramatizes by translating the “manager” of the temple as the “boss”.
There are many other amusing and outlandish remarks that Kripal interjects, without having done the rigorous due diligence to understand his subject matter in a genuine manner. For instance, Tyagananda explains: “Kripal may be at his most laughable when he tells us that Ramakrishna’s practice of Vedanta consisted of only taking the monastic vows and eating rice in the portico of the Dakshineswar temple.”
12) Suppressing the facts:
The massive archive on the life of Ramakrishna has more than enough material to provide authentic accounts of his life and of the theory and practice of his teachings. However, since that would run counter to the conclusions that Kripal premises his work upon, he simply ignores the evidence that contradicts his thesis. Tyagananda charges:
“Kripal has omitted portions of the texts he quotes in order to suppress information that would run contrary to his thesis…. Isn’t this just a convenient form of censorship?”
Kripal’s soft spoken and endearing demeanor has deceived many gullible Indians, who often find it hard to believe that he would make blatant attempts to falsify the facts. But Tyagananda catches him red-handed several times. For example:
“Kripal says that he has never argued something as simplistic as that Ramakrishna was a pederast [sexual lover of young boys]… While Kripal may not have used those words in his book, that was certainly his conviction which guided his interpretations. How else can one explain his letter (14 August 1996) written to the secretary of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, Boston, in which he wrote that it was quite “obvious” that “Ramakrishna’s mystical states were accompanied, and likely generated, by some ethically problematic acts, among them pedophilia.”[ xxvi ]
13) The Kangaroo Court trial of Sri Ramakrishna:
Tyagananda summarizes Kripal’s methods used in the name of scholarship:
“Since Kripal wants to associate Ramakrishna with boys, no matter what, we shouldn’t be surprised that he first suspects, then assumes, then presents as a fact that Ramakrishna was sexually abused as a child. That there is absolutely no evidence for this makes no difference to Dr. Kripal; we have the effect – Ramakrishna’s “homoerotic impulses” – so now the cause must be found. Aha! Certainly he must have been sexually abused as a child. The spiritual ecstasies that Ramakrishna experienced as a child are thus reinterpreted as “troubling trances”[xxvii]. The only one “troubled” by them is Kripal who feels compelled to find sexual abuse somewhere in there.”
Rubbing his hands in glee, Jeffrey Kripal proclaims: “The case of Ramakrishna’s homosexuality… seems to be closed…. Kali’s Child has been lauded by scholars… for being right.”[ xxviii ]
However, Tyagananda replies: “One wonders if any of those praising the book have ever read its citations. Have any of those scholars who have given the book so much acclaim actually read the Bengali sources that he quotes? How many of them can actually read Bengali well, if at all?”
Huston Smith, perhaps the most widely read Western scholar of Religious Studies of all times, has severely criticized Kali’s Child in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, calling this type of scholarship, “colonialism updated.”[ xxix ] Granted that Wendy’s team has got a head start because of stealth scholarship, but I am not prepared to concede that they shall have the final word.
14) Evasive dismissal of criticism, by psychoanalyzing the critics:
Tyagananda rejects Kripal’s attempts to put the spotlight on Hindus’ alleged narrow-mindedness, as a shallow ploy to shift attention from his bad scholarship:
“To say, therefore, that those who reject Kripal’s thesis are doing so from their own homophobia is to completely miss the point…. To sum up: The problem I address in my critique is not the sexualized reading per se. The problem has nothing to do with homosexuality. The problem is with the evidence, and in particular the massive distortion and misuse thereof in Prof. Kripal’s book. Where there is adequate evidence, let there be homoerotic, hetero-erotic, or otherwise erotic readings of the lives and motivations of saints – and scholars! But let not the evidence be manufactured.”[ xxx ]
“To make the facile claim that the criticism leveled against Kali’s Child was due to [the critics’] homophobia is to deflect from the real issue of shoddy and deceptive scholarship…. Kripal, in discussing the angry reaction to his book received in India and among Ramakrishna devotees, views their outrage as an expression of their fear of homosexuality. … Now with pious admonitions rising like the full swell of a church choir, Kripal pleads: ‘I can only encourage them not to walk down this path, as so much of our humanity (and divinity) lies in a decidedly different direction.’”
Psychological Profile of the Scholar:
Kripal’s Indian name comes from his father, whose family was of Roma (“gypsy”) extraction and lived inCentral Europe for many generations. Jeff admits to this only when asked point-blank, and identifies himself as a white man.[ xxxi ] It has not been psychoanalyzed as to what extent his Oedipal struggle to distance himself from his father might have compelled him to prove his alienation from Indic traditions by engaging in scholarly Hindu-bashing.
Furthermore, Prof. Sil explains Kripal’s “psychosexual psychology”[ xxxii ]:
“We learn that prior to joining graduate school at Chicago, Jeffrey was training to be a monk or a minister at a Catholic seminary, where he was “forced to explore the interfaces between sexuality and spirituality” and he felt “more than tortured by [his] own psychosexual pathologies.” By “psychosexual pathology” Kripal means, as he put parenthetically, anorexia nervosa. This means, as is well known, a pathological condition in which the patient cannot retain any food (or feces, if we choose to go by a Kripal-like psychoanalytic symbolism which he applied to Ramakrishna) in the body. He also writes that he felt his readings in Christian bridal mysticism somewhat unholy because of its apparent homoeroticism. However, upon further cogitations (or perhaps, meditations) on the subject Kripal “came to a rather surprising conclusion in regard to [his] own mystico-erotic tradition: heterosexuality is heretical.” He then tells readers that his “religious life was quite literally killing [him]” – his “body weight had sunk well below the normal.” It was at this juncture that the future biographer of Ramakrishna turned his attention to stuff Hindu and chanced upon the Bengali priest of Dakshineswar.”
Kripal’s personal psychosis includes at least (i) his self-acknowledged homophobia, and (ii) his deep-rooted complex of being half Roma (and therefore wanting to prove his separation from that part of his roots in order to claim full-fledged white pedigree). This psychosis has entered his work, and become the driving force behind it.
Similar anecdotes of personal psychosis, that seem to infect this cult of scholars, or at least a large portion of it, became the basis for my interest in Wendy’s Child Syndrome. As the additional examples will show below, it is quite common for Western scholars to play out their private lives through their scholarship about “others”, in ways that are both positive and negative.
Besides the numerous errors in translation, there are other methodological problems with Kali’s Child that the academy is refusing to investigate. For instance:
- Western scholars in psychology departments no longer regard Freudian methods as being solid proof of anything serious. Hence, such misapplications by religion scholars, who are not formally trained in psychology, especially when applied to topics that are far removed from their familiar Western culture, is a case of the blind leading the blind.
Freud had ruled out the possibility of applying his methods either posthumously to dead people, or via native informants to third parties who are not directly engaged by the psychoanalyst. This alone makesKali’s Child a bogus work.
Freud never had access to non-Western patients, so that he never established his theories’ validity in other cultures. Wendy’s school of scholarship universalizes Freudian methodologies and pathologies, and combines it with extreme and obscure Indic materials, to distort and weave these wild theories of Indian culture.
Notwithstanding all these issues, RISA scholars dare not challenge the work based on Wendy’s theories, given the political power of her club.
To appreciate that this is not an isolated case, but rather the dominant variety of scholarship by certain important scholars, let us read how Wendy interprets Mahabharata (I.101) as symbolism of homosexuality and Indians’ sexual pathologies:[ xxxiii ]
“A sage named Mandavya is wrongly supposed to have participated in a robbery and is impaled on a stake. We may see masked homosexual symbolism in the impalement (a homosexual violation) and the cutting off of the long stake (a castration), though we should also notice what the Indian tradition makes of this episode: In a kind of reverse castration, Mandavya feels that he has gained something, has been given a stake that, however shortened, he still seems to regard as an extension of himself, a useful superpenis, as it were. The childhood guilt that inspired the episode of anal intercourse gives way to the fantasy of the large penis of the grown man.”
As Edward Said explained, the West’s “other” and “self” are co-constructed intellectually, the construction of one being used to construct the other. This is why it pains Wendy and her Children to have their pet theories about Indians refuted, because their self-images rest on such Orientalist constructions.
An imagined and exoticised Indian culture, with its imagined pathologies, is the mirror in which these scholars define themselves and enact their deepest fantasies. This psychosis often drives the scholars work — via the topics and questions selected, the data imagined and filtered, and the interpretation given. Therefore, the book Kali’s Child gives great insights into what is being defined here as Wendy’s Child Syndrome, rather than being a legitimate portrayal of Sri Ramakrishna.
Target: The Hindu Goddess
Goddess as symbol of sex and violence:
Sarah Caldwell is also afflicted by Wendy’s Child Syndrome[ xxxiv ], and is another powerful leader of RISA. She is a winner of the prestigious Robert Stoller Award for her scholarship on the Hindu Goddess, and is amongst the elite who decide which papers and topics get included at academic conferences on Hinduism. To judge for yourself as to whether scholars like her represent Hinduism in a balanced manner, below are a few excerpts from her recent research paper, titled, “The Bloodthirsty tongue and the self fed breast, homosexual fellatio fantasy in a south Indian ritual tradition” for which she was given the award mentioned above:
“This essay demonstrates that in Kerala, symbolism of the fierce goddess [Kali] does not represent abreactions of the primal scene fantasies of a Kleinian ‘phallic mother’ or introjection of the father’s penis; rather, we will show that themes of eroticism and aggression in the mythology are male transsexual fantasies reflecting intense preoedipal fixation on the mother’s body and expressing conflicts over primary feminine identity.”[xxxv]
“The essential rituals of the Bhagavati cult all point to the aggressive and fatal erotic drinking of the male by the female, the infamous orgy of blood sacrifice of male ‘cocks’ at the Kodugallur Bhagavati temple; the male veliccappatu’s cutting of his head in a symbolic act of self castration…. [Kali] is herself, first of all, a phallic being, the mother with a penis, … she is the bloodied image of the castrating and menstruating (thus castrating) female…. In this type of analysis the phallic abilities of the goddess disguise castration anxieties ultimately directed toward the father as well as homosexual desire for the father’s penis. Following Freud, such analyses stress the father-son polarity of the oedipal conflict as the central trauma seeking expression.”[ xxxvi ]
“As Alter and O’Flaherty amply demonstrate, milk and breast-feeding are also symbolically transformed in the male imagination into semen and phallus…. The ascetic male who retains the semen becomes like a pregnant female with breasts and swollen belly; the semen rises like cream to his head and produces extraordinary psychic powers… Not only are the fluids of milk and semen, symbolic equivalents, but the act of ‘milking’ or breastfeeding becomes a symbolic equivalent to the draining of semen from the phallus in intercourse.”[ xxxvii ]
Notice how Caldwell uses the English word “cock” for the animal, so as to link the ritual with the phallus. Since the Keralites in the ritual are not superimposing this English word onto their ritual, this is an example of how the scholar’s own psychosis is entering her supposedly objective work. It shows how important it is to psychoanalyze these scholars in order to evaluate their work.
It has been reported that Caldwell was able to establish intimate “trusting relationships” with Indian men in Kerala, so as to extract useful “confessions” from them, presumably by paying them to perform services that could be classified as “native informant services.” One such 21-year-old is quoted by her to the effect that homosexual encounters are rampant in the society of Kerala. Many more similar “confessions” fill her work, and sweeping conclusions are drawn.
Recently, Caldwell has published another book titled, “Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Mother Kali.”[ xxxviii ] To get a glimpse of what her latest book is all about, here is an excerpt from Cynthia Humes’ critical review of the book:[ xxxix ]
“…Caldwell documents numerous themes of sexuality, abuse, and vengeance in Keralite religion and culture. She concludes, “Mutiyettu actors who are particularly talented at playing the role of Kali might be traumatized individuals whose particular psychological propensities and histories compel them towards this form of performance” (259). I find this unconvincing. As she herself notes, Caldwell did not conduct a detailed study of or even collect the life histories of the individual Mutiyettu actors playing the role of Kali; so there is no direct evidence of even one individual fitting this typology (259). The implications she sees, while tantalizing and truly fascinating, are based on extended digging into and assembling a dispersed array of sensationalist and homoerotic mythological themes, combined with rumored sexual activity. The unlikelihood of the thesis is underscored by the fact that the role of Kali is only open to a handful of individuals, who must wait until the age of over fifty to even assume this coveted starring role, and further, they would need to evidence “particular talent.”
However, later in this review, Cynthia Humes agrees with certain aspects of the sexual interpretation of the ritual, even though she superimposes a different personal psychosis than Caldwell:
“The lack of evidence is noteworthy, for it contrasts sharply with other trenchant psychoanalytic assertions based on detailed, sustained, and well-argued descriptions rooted in recorded male and female experience of the Mutiyettu. For example, Caldwell does convince me that “by coopting this power in transvestite possession performance, males reclaim the envied feminine procreative power within their own bodies, while denying actual social, sexual, and political power to women” (189). Yet I do not dismiss out of hand homoerotic themes in Mutiyettu. I find it likely and in keeping with the evidence that the audience consists largely of male Keralites exposed to homoerotic rumor and possible clandestine homosexual activity, as well as unwelcome sexual advances by older female relatives. It would take little to convince me, based onCaldwell’s data, that such an audience could experience vicarious attraction to the male transvestite ritualists, especially in reenactment of their own fears of female sexuality and preferred company of men.”
Autobiography as Scholarship:
Later in the same review, Cynthia Humes confirms that Caldwell’s work, as Kripal’s, is largely autobiographical in nature — a psychodrama that uncovers the scholar’s own warped pathologies, often hidden beneath deep wounds of past trauma:
“I do not doubt the sincerity of Caldwell’s belief that the goddess was “somehow ‘running my show’” or that her personal tragedies had “meaning and significance beyond my personal lusts, fears, neuroses, and confusions” (267). Abundant examples of Caldwell’s lingering resentment are given free reign, deservedly in some ways toward her now ex-husband but less so toward her disapproving academic guide. This guide (despite his assistance in interviews, and arrangements to have one of his students aid her in settling in, and provision of some obviously helpful advice) she grills for his attempt to influence her research program. She further suspects him of avariciousness toward her grant and, ironically, belittles his suspicion of her possible infidelity (a suspicion that turns out to be justified) (54). These become examples of Obeyesekere’s theories of “progressive orientation”, underscoring how Caldwell’s personal confession authorizes her broad psychoanalytic theories about a remarkably similar projected rage and resentment in the person of Bhadrakali. In so doing, Caldwell preserves and in important ways, I believe, even enlarges the power differential between author and reader that authorizes her participant-observer projections onto her subjects.”
The “personal confession” refers to Caldwell’s writings about how she was abused sexually by her family, and the leading role she played in organizing a movement to attack the late Swami Muktananda for alleged sexual abuses of women in his ashram. While I have written extensively about U-Turns by Western scholars for the purpose of enriching their native Judeo-Christian traditions, one must not ignore the significance of U-Turns that are caused by personal trauma, such as alleged sexual abuse. This was the case with Caldwell.[ xl ]
This projection of the scholar’s personal psychosis upon the subject matter, using very loose and arbitrary interpretations to stretch the facts and to seek similar pathologies elsewhere, is the very definition ofWendy’s Child Syndrome. One could, therefore, enjoy reading the book, Kali’s Child as an insight into one particular Wendy’s Child, namely, Jeff Kripal. Caldwell’s writings should, likewise, be seen as an autobiographical projection of a traumatized Western Feminist struggling with feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Starting out as psychosexual deviants or other misfits in their own culture, many such scholars find hospitality and meaning in India, but later make U-Turns for various reasons, especially upon realizing that there is a lucrative market, both for negative exotica and for positive cultural loot. This empowerment of the scholar’s ego, done at the expense of the source culture that gave them a dignified life to begin with, raises ethical and moral questions as well.
Having said this, I also feel that Hindus must show sympathy for the scholars’ psychosis, as this would be a kinder and gentler way to let them know that their scholarship is about their own private lives, and is unsuitable for teaching about India.
Hindus know that no single form of the Goddess represents all of her forms, and, therefore, any view of the Goddess is incomplete if it is not seen as one part of a wider and more comprehensive portrayal of her multiple forms. Therefore, the Western over-emphasis on her sensational forms, and especially sexual and violent ones, is a reductionism of the worst kind. This would be analogous to a textbook on Bill Clinton in which the entire presidency is depicted as being about Monica Lewinsky. Scholars should see this as misleading and irresponsible.
The argument that such works are only for scholars’ internal consumption is false, because in this Internet age there can be no secrets from the public at large. My advice to scholars is that if they don’t want to be embarrassed by people publicly quoting their writings and talks, then the best policy is not to utter such words in the first place. However, as is amply clear from examining the works of Wendy’s Children, these writings are not incidental to their work, but comprise the very heart of their claims to original thinking, without which they would not have much else to say!
Psychologizing Popular Hindu Culture:
As expected, Caldwell supports Jeff Kripal’s work, but she adds another important dimension to it: she interprets all complaints from the Hindu community as a sign of psychological disorder of the Hindu community, something that she strongly feels needs to be psychoanalyzed, in order to find out what is wrong with Hindu people. She writes:[ xli ]
“The hostility with which Jeff’s book has been attacked in India is due, I believe, not to what Jeff has to say about the real, historical Ramakrishna, but what his thesis implies about Vivekananda, and by extension, contemporary Hindu nationalism.
“Anyone who has seen Anand Patwardhan’s “Father, Son, and Holy War” film series (particularly part 2, “Hero Pharmacy”) understands the deep connections between male sexual prowess, virility, and Hindu nationalist violence that are so explicitly presented therein. Ramakrishna’s tantric “madness” easily fits a South Asian understanding of the behavior of saints; many gurus and saints display anti-social or inverted tendencies (and Ramakrishna’s open and active rejection of heterosexuality, even more than his homosexuality, was a deeply antisocial act in Ramakrishna’s social world); and the tantric use of sexuality as reversal (both social and spiritual) goes back deep into Hindu tradition, as we all know….
“To get back to the point, I suggest it is not really the problematic of Ramakrishna that underlies the hate mail Jeff has received. Implications that Vivekananda, who reformulated Ramakrishna’s message into the masculine, cleaned-up reformist Hinduism that first presented itself to the world stage in presentable form a century ago, was the passive homosexual object of his guru’s lust is deeply threatening. Such an image raises spectres of the “feminine” male of India that was so much a part of colonial discourse, and that pervades contemporary Hindu nationalism. I suggest we view this entire debate in a broader perspective than simply that of religious studies and hermeneutics. We need to consider issues that Ashis Nandy has explicated in THE INTIMATE ENEMY, and that Joe Alter has written about eloquently as well, vis a vis, the role of male sexual potency and masculine identity in the nationalist struggle…. Homosexuality in contemporary Indian political discourse is not a sign of individual sexual proclivities but a symbol of weakness and dominance relations between males. Lawrence Cohen has written about this in a provocative article about Holi political cartoons, showing political rivals homosexually penetrating one another, etc.”
Caldwell continues to stretch her thesis further, and claims that these alleged sexual pathologies of Hindus, their saints and their Goddess, are the window to understand their public culture and politics as well:
“In short we need to be careful to examine what “homosexuality” means in the rhetorical and personal contexts in which it is being used, and the historical and political background of the discussion of masculinity in South Asia, and not to focus exclusively on the personal domain as is common in Europe and America. We need to psychologize public culture as well as the private sphere. Jeff’s book, while providing a nuanced and empathetic account of an individual life, invites us to broaden our lens to understand the reception of that life and its distortion in a century of highly contested religious posturing. With the current election of a BJP-led government, such careful analysis is timely and essential.”
To “psychoanalyze a public culture” is a politically correct way of stereotyping and ethnic profiling. Note how she separates out the “personal domain as is common in Europe and America” because she gives white people individuality and agency, whereas Indians, and especially Hindus, are being denied individuality and agency.
Caldwell ‘s scholarship may be summarized as reaching the following conclusions:
- Sexual “madness” in Hindu saints and in the Goddess is common and expected.
To hide this pathology from the West, Vivekananda (who Caldwell claims was Ramakrishna’s “passive homosexual object”) repackages Hinduism into a masculine image.
The alleged sexual deviance and hyper-masculinity resulting from #2 applies not only to Hindu individuals but also to the social culture of Hinduism.
Hence, there is urgency in her mind to study contemporary Hindu culture in this fashion, especially since the BJP-led government came to power.
Ergo, academic Religious Studies must now get into contemporary Indian politics! This thesis legitimizes and gives cover to Prof. Gerald Larson’s U-Turn[ xlii ] — from being a serious scholar of Samkhya for decades, to his new career in deconstructing “Hindu Nationalist” politics.
You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours — this seems to be the modus operandi of this cult of scholars. Jeff Kripal, the editor of the book in which Caldwell’s psychoanalysis of the Hindu Goddess appears, gives the following legitimization of this cutting-edge scholarship:
“… Hindus sometimes find the conclusions of psychoanalysis so offensive to their own self-perceptions and cultural understandings; given the psychoanalytical attempt to crack the codes of the social and intra-psychic censors and its explicit desire to reveal secrets and uncover hidden truths, it would be very surprising indeed if they reacted in any other way. In short, psychoanalysis is a method that expects to be rejected. Psychoanalysis, then, goes well beyond the anthropologist’s field study and the Sanskritist’s text and the historian of religions’ phenomenological study to answer questions that no interview, text, or phenomenological study is willing to ask, much less answer.“[ xliii ]
The Myth of Objective Scholarship:
The reader should note how many of these Eurocentric academic scholars who specialize in Hinduism, virtually end up reinventing the subject (for instance, the Goddess), in line with their own agendas, psychoses and cultural prejudices. (For my bibliography on Criticisms of Eurocentrism, see the endnote[xliv ].) This is achieved largely by:
- Arbitrarily selecting the topics and questions, the subsets of the texts to be used, the filters and lenses applied.
Superimposing false translations — all in the name of authentic objective scholarship.
Excluding the community of Hindus, or representing them by proxy, or reporting upon them as “native informants.” For instance, the representatives of specific sampradayas are not invited to be respondents when the conclusions are discussed or published. This is illustrated by the secret trial of Sri Ramakrishnain absentia, as discussed earlier.
Attacking any independent challenger with the worst ad hominems imaginable. Minimal criticism by RISA insiders, who know where to draw the line, is encouraged, so as to give the aura of peer review and integrity. As a case of defense by offense, those who put the spotlight on the skeletons in the closet become objects of intense anger, especially when this is done in front of the Diaspora, whose kids are sitting in classrooms where the RISA scholars teach.
Target: Ganesha and Shiva
In an undergraduate textbook authored by Paul Courtright, a Professor of Indian religions atEmoryUniversity, Ganesha’s stories and rituals are depicted from various perspectives, including the following psychoanalysis[ xlv ]:
“[F]rom a psychoanalytic perspective, there is meaning in the selection of the elephant head. Its trunk is the displaced phallus, a caricature of Siva’s linga. It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid, and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purposes. … So Ganesa takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated limp phallus – ascetic and benign – whereas Siva is “hard”, erotic, and destructive.”[xlvi]
“He [Ganesa] remains celibate so as not to compete erotically with his father, a notorious womanizer, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter.”[ xlvii ]
“Ganesa is like a eunuch guarding the women of the harem. In Indian folklore and practice, eunuchs have served as trusted guardians of the antahpura, the seraglio. “They have the reputation of being homosexuals, with a penchant for oral sex, and are looked upon as the very dregs of society.” (Hiltebeitel 1980, p. 162). … Like the eunuch, Ganesa has the power to bless and curse; that is, to place and remove obstacles. Although there seem to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesa explicitly performs oral sex, his insatiable appetite for sweets may be interpreted as an effort to satisfy a hunger that seems inappropriate in an otherwise ascetic disposition, a hunger having clear erotic overtones. Ganesa’s broken tusk, his guardian staff, and displaced head can be interpreted as symbols of castration…. This combination of child-ascetic-eunuch in the symbolism of Ganesa – each an explicit denial of adult male sexuality – appears to embody a primal Indian male longing: to remain close to the mother and to do so in a way that will both protect her and yet be acceptable to the father. This means that the son must retain access to the mother but not attempt to possess her sexually.”[ xlviii ]
Many Indians wrote angrily against this to an Internet list. One man, who said that he respected Jesus, wrote a “fictitious distortion” of Christian symbols and narratives, using Prof. Courtright’s genre of hermeneutics, as an analog for feedback to the scholars:
“Jesus was a filthy and indecent man. He learned some magic tricks from the visiting Persian merchants. The Romans often invited him to perform at their parties, and in exchange, they offered him wine. So he routinely got drunk, tried to be “a notorious womanizer,” and was a hobo all his life. Since Jesus’ mother was a prostitute, she did not want to announce the true identity of his father, and had to make up a story for the illiterate nomads. Therefore, Mary claimed that Jesus was born without physical intercourse. So all his life, Jesus guarded the myth of his mother’s virginity and hid the immoral activities of his father and other customers who visited her for sex. The Roman commander played a joke upon Jesus by crucifying him using the cross, symbolizing that the cross was the phallus which his mother must have used for his conception. Thus, his followers today carry a cross as the phallic symbol of his immaculate conception.”
The author then asked: “How would the above be considered if it were written by a non-Christian academic scholar in a country where Christianity is a small minority – just as Hinduism is a small minority in the US?” While there exist many criticisms and negative caricatures of Christianity, the point is that in introductory courses, and especially if the audience is non-Christian, such caricatures are not used.
Wendy wrote the foreword to Courtright’s book, even though he did not get his Ph.D from her. Courtright differs from Kripal and Caldwell, because his use of psychoanalysis is suggestive and not definitive. He says that he does not put the psychoanalytic material at the center of his project, but as one angle of interpretation.
Regarding his affinity towards Wendy, he wrote[ xlix ]: “You are using the term ‘child’ metaphorically, but I’m honored to be considered part of her [i.e. Wendy’s] kinship group.”
Courtright also considers Wendy to be good for Indic traditions: “Wendy has been influential in raising the visibility of Indian civilization through a presentation of the liveliness of its mythic tradition and shifting it away from a more bland and pious and negative image that came through a lot of the Orientalist and missionary scholarship that you rightly take issue with.”
In response, I must say that no scholar whose work is considered offensive by Hindus regards himself/herself as hating India or Hinduism. The British also loved India, so do the Christian proselytizers who try to ‘save’ Hindus, so do the multinationals who are devastating local farmers and producers, and so do Marxists who try to eradicate indigenous culture so as to “progress” the poor. My concern is precisely that Wendy raised the “visibility of Indian civilization” and “liveliness of its mythic tradition,” but in the wrong ways and for the wrong reasons. She has turned it into stereotyped exotica and erotica, trivializing its rationality and its spiritual truth-claims as fodder for psychoanalysis, and hiding its relevance for today’s world.
Courtright also praises that “Wendy has worked hard at Chicago to recruit Indian graduate students (as we have here at Emory) because we are concerned that there is an imbalance between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ — whatever that means — in the field.” But I have personally seen both kinds of Indian students in Hinduism Studies from Chicago: those who got reprogrammed into neocolonized sepoys, and those who remain loyal to their heritage despite the pressures.[ l ]
Another scholar, Dr. Patrick Bresnan, writes about Shiva in a manner that is now considered a common depiction of Shiva in certain Western academic circles[ li ]:
“Entering the world of Shiva worship is to enter the world of India at its most awesomely mysterious and bewildering; at least for the non-Indian. In Shiva worship, the Indian creative imagination erupts in a never-ending multiplicity of gods and demons, occult rituals, and stunning sexual symbolism …Linga/yoni veneration was not the whole of it …Young women, known as devadasis, were commonly connected with Shiva temples, and participated in the rituals, sometimes only in a symbolic fashion; sometimes not. In a degraded form the devadasi became nothing more than temple prostitutes. These extremes were more often to be found among the practitioners of Tantra, that enigmatic antithesis of conservative Hinduism that developed in northeastern India. Some Tantra temples became notorious for all kinds of extreme practices, including ritual rape and ritual murder. In Calcutta, at the Temple of Durga (one of the forms of Shiva’s shakti) there was an annual festival at which many pigs, goats, sheep, fowl, and even water buffaloes would be slaughtered and ritually burned before the statue of the goddess.”
It may well be true that many of these things happen in some situations and contexts. But my point is different. The typical American student uses his/her pre-existing Eurocentric biases as the context for interpretation. This depiction of Shiva gets filtered through Eurocentric lenses, consciously or unconsciously, into the student’s life-long worldview about Indian culture. These biases are usually loaded with tremendous ignorance about Indic culture and non-Abrahamic religions. There would be nothing wrong with such depictions if they were contextualized properly, derived from valid evidence, and were not essentialized as the primary teaching about Shiva — but there is hardly enough time in the typical American curriculum to properly build a foundation first.
Consequently, the spiritual ideas of Shaivism are often lost, because the erotic-exotic image assumes center stage. At its best, the tradition is seen as not having anything positive to offer to a serious and rational young person. At its worst, Shiva is denigrated as the cause of all sorts of social ills such as rapes, sexual irresponsibility, violence, and so forth — in other words, depicted as a criminal cult god, but without saying it in so many words in order to remain politically correct.
Billions of dollars have been spent on Western scholarship to gather field data about Indic culture, so as to “scientifically prove” various theories. Why have these scholars failed to gather data on how ignorant Americans are about Indic culture, on how anti-Hindu prejudices harm American society, and especially on how Americans’ prejudices are correlated with what the scholars have written and taught?
Here is yet another example of how the cut-and-paste academic scholarship collapses important Hindu ideas into one simplistic bundle of meanings, to produce a distortion:[ lii ]
“The myths of ‘Hindu tolerance’ and ‘Indian inclusiveness’ have been questioned before, but have become increasingly difficult to maintain in the light of contemporary conflicts. Those familiar with Indian myths know that destruction as well as creation and preservation has been a recurring theme. If the god Brahma is thought of as the creator and Vishnu as the preserver, it is also true that Siva and Kali are thought of as destroyers.”
This is a common but dangerous and false superimposition of classical Indian texts to over-interpret contemporary society. Dissolution by Shiva has numerous context-sensitive meanings, including transcendence out of human misery by dissolution of maya — which is why he is associated with yoga. The reductionist mapping “dissolution = destruction” is incorrect. Likewise, Kali’s meanings are multifaceted, and depend on the context and level of the practitioner.[ liii ]
Stanley Kurtz, an anthropologist of India, uses psychoanalysis to conclude that Hindu mothers do not have “a Western-style loving, emotional partnership” with their babies:[ liv ]
“The special relationship between the Hindu mother and her son appears here as a variation on a distinctive Hindu pattern rather than as a mere intensification of a style of intimacy found in the West… Nursing is not therefore, an occasion through which mother and child cement on an emotional union. The child is frequently fed, yet the mother seldom lingers to mirror the baby’s satisfaction. Thus, while the child no doubt develops a strong emotional attachment to the mother as a result of the physical gratification she provides, the mother does not respond by setting up a Western-style loving, emotional partnership.”
This is utterly false, namely, that Hindu mothers do not see nursing the baby as opportunity to cement emotional union, the way white women supposedly do. This kind of racial, ethnic and cultural profiling and denigration has replaced what used to be blatant racism. Today, this racism is justified as “objective” research findings, and is especially dangerous because many Indian scholars have sold out to join this movement.
In yet another book, “All the Mothers Are One,”[ lv ] Stanley Kurtz has constructed a new model for the psychology of Hinduism, based on his studies into Indian social and family structures, and interviews with devotees of Santoshi Ma. Claiming that Durga symbolizes the castrating Mother Goddess, he has propounded the Durga Complex to explain “the characteristically Hindu form of conflicts over unconscious incestuous strivings,”[ lvi ] in which “castration symbolism at the most mature level represents transformative self-willed sacrifice signaling the abandonment of infantile attachments…”[ lvii ]
To deny Hindus their sense of individuality, he writes: “Their notion of the divine knows neither boundaries of time, place, substance, nor identity.”[ lviii ] And therefore claims: “Individualism is built into our psychic structure but not into that of the Hindu.”[ lvix ]
Besides finding many technical flaws in his methodologies, Humes criticizes his work severely as
“a method which in the end borders on racism: despite arguing for greater sensitivity to cultural difference in psychology, “those people” over “there” are actually all alike – but not like “us”…Kurtz psychology excludes Hindu women…they are, after all, “mommies” whose psychology can be dispensed with in a few words and a note.”
The new editor of the major 15-volume critical edition of Mahabharata being published by The University of Chicago Press, said at the Mahabharata Conference in Montreal, that MB is “God’s Genocide,” the main theme being “Krishna commanding the destruction of mankind,” and that this should be the overarching theme of the entire translation. So what do we have here? Islamic scholars are busy trying to clean up the image of Islam. On the other hand, Hinduism scholars are trying the opposite — appearing to demonize it, and thereby causing, intentionally or otherwise, Hindu shame amongst the youth.
History shows that genocides have been preceded by the denigration of the victims — showing them as irrational, immoral, lacking a legitimate religion, lacking in compassion towards others and love towards their babies, etc., i.e. not deserving of the same human rights extended to white people. Notice how these so-called practices of mothers are labeled as “a distinctive Hindu pattern” per se. This is also why “dowry murders” have been very aggressively put on the dominant culture’s agenda, to be prosecuted specifically as “a Hindu problem,” even though the scholarship of Veena Oldenburg and others clearly establishes that it is not a “Hindu” problem.[ lx ]
The time has come to ask: How does today’s scholarship compare with the Eurocentric scholarship in earlier times about Native Americans, African slaves, Jews, Roma, and others, who were subsequently victims of genocide in various ways? Are certain “objective” scholars, unconsciously driven by their Eurocentric essences, to pave the way for a future genocide of a billion or more Hindus, because of economic and/or ecological pressures of over-population later during this century?
Even in those instances where the scholar might be criticizing genuine social problems within “Hindu society,” Dave Freedholm explains how Hinduism is not being given the same treatment as Christianity:
“When scholars examine the world’s religions they usually attempt to distinguish between their ‘universal’ theological/philosophical foundations and the particular historically and culturally bound social structures of societies that practice those religions. To take Christianity as an example, biblical scholars, using a sophisticated hermeneutics, extract a ‘universal’ Pauline theology from the social context of Paul’s letters that presumed slavery, the subjugation of women, etc. Pauline statements that seem to support this social order are reinterpreted in light of passages that are deemed to reflect more universal values.”[ lxi ]
How Reliable is Wendy Doniger’s Sanskrit?
There are many ways to define “correct” translation. My criteria is that it must be accepted by the mainstream community whose tradition is in question — in accordance with the concept known as purva-paksha. If the text’s authors’ intentions and the practitioners’ interpretations are to be over-ruled, then there should be a rigorous burden of proof on the scholar’s part. I also feel that a “correct” translation is inseparable from the culture and the contexts applicable. I am not criticizing the entire academic work of Doniger, but merely those items that are specifically discussed here. However, I was unable to find a single comprehensive critical evaluation of Wendy’s work, nor any plans to produce such a criticism, despite the enormous importance given to her work, and the fact that what is as stake is the legitimacy of the insider’s view of the world’s oldest literary tradition. One must also bring into this discussion the hermeneutics of power — especially since there is a concentration of control over the distribution of academic knowledge. Finally, one cannot defend the criticism of her work X by showing the greatness of another work Y, nor by psychoanalyzing the critics, and nor by disqualifying the critics.
Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard was once publicly challenged to prove his claim that Wendy Doniger’s knowledge of Vedic Sanskrit is severely flawed. Witzel’s claim seemed as audacious as saying that the Pope is not a good catholic. Therefore, Witzel quickly published on the web several important examples of Sanskrit mistranslations by Wendy Doniger.[ lxii ]
It is said, that Witzel was privately reprimanded for being so critical of the Queen of Hinduism. Witzel was unfairly demonized and blackballed — it was certainly his right to criticize such blatant blunders, especially given the clout and power enjoyed by Wendy. If gods, goddesses and saints can be deconstructed by her, then why should her work be exempt from criticism? The following three examples raise some doubts over whether she should be the Queen.
Witzel on Doniger’s Mistranslation of the Rig Veda:
With due respects to Doniger’s scholarship and insights, it must be pointed out, because it is not universally known even among Indologists, that the depth of the professor’s knowledge of Sanskrit has been called into question by Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard University. To quote Witzel, Doniger’s “rendering of even the first two paadas [of Rig Veda] is more of a paraphrase than a translation,” and her style “is rather a stream of unconnected George-Bush-like anacoluths.” He goes on to illustrate his point by referring to Doniger’s translation of one verse, “He will shed tears, sobbing, when he learns,” and commenting that “there is no sobbing here,” and that she simply made that up to give the desired effect.
But it is not just in translation that Doniger fails. Her interpretations are also flawed. Witzel charges that Doniger “denies the possibility of male/female friendship — perhaps a current local cultural bias — but certainly not a Rgvedic one.” He also reveals that in her translations, “Sakhya is completely misunderstood, as is usual in such cases with Indologists not very conversant with Vedic; it is understood on the basis of Epic/Classical sakhi “friend” and thus the whole point of the apparent saying is missed. A Vedic sakhi is not just any friend…”
Astonished, Witzel concludes: “In this hymn (of 18 stanzas) alone I have counted 43 instances which are wrong or where others would easily disagree.”
Witzel on Doniger’s Mistranslation of the Jaiminiya Brahmana:
Regarding Wendy’s translation of “Jaiminiya Brahmana,” Prof. Witzel remarks: “And of course, the translation, again is a ‘re’-translation” of others’ works” in which she has “merely added a fashionable(?) Freudian coating…”
Witzel continues: “The trouble again is that [Doniger] did not follow up the secondary literature well, not even with the help of the students she mentions…if the sec. lit. had been used — the translation would have turned out much better.”
Witzel exposes “her predilection for street language colloquialisms,” such as “balls of cowshit, balls of shit” and “balls of Indra”, which Witzel considers to be “Vedic slang” not found in the Sanskrit texts. Furthermore, he charges, there are “many gaps in the translations where words or whole sentences have been forgotten…”
Even more seriously of concern to Witzel are Wendy’s errors in what he calls the “serious grammatical business,” for which he scolds her for “misunderstanding the ‘first-year Sanskrit’.” “Difficult sentences,” writes Witzel, “are simply left out without telling us so.”
Witzel concludes: “Simple question: if ‘that’ much is wrong in just one story (and this is a small selection only!) — what about the rest of this book and her other translations?… It might have been better to have used the old translations and to have added her Freudian interpretation to them… In sum: The “translation” simply is UNREALIABLE.”
Witzel on Doniger’s Mistranslation of the Laws of Manu:
Reviewing this translation by Doniger, Witzel writes: “I give just one example which shows both wrong (rather, lack of) philological method and lack of simple common sense.” (See endnote for the rather technical example.[ lxiii ])
Furthermore, Witzel criticizes Doniger for using only a small selection of the available variations. She does not invest serious energy in selecting what variations to use where and why. Therefore, concludes Witzel, her scholarship is not of the standard required by Harvard: “In view of all of this, I wonder indeed whether D’s translation would have been accepted in the Harvard Oriental Series rather than in Penguin…”
This brief but devastating review of the Queen’s scholarship was just the tip of the iceberg of what Witzel could have done, had he not been asked to stop. His overall remarks about the above three examples of her mistranslation:
“Note that all 3 translations are RE-translations. Mistakes of the type mentioned above could easily have been avoided if the work of our 19th century predecessors (and contemporaries!) had been consulted more carefully… Last point: Looking at the various new translations that have appeared in the past decade or so: Why always to RE-translate something done ‘several’ times over already — and why not to take up one of the zillion UN-translated Skt. texts?”
Witzel is also critical of the heroic proclamations by Wendy’s cronies about her books: “And a little less hype would also do: ‘a landmark translation, the first authoritative translation in this century’ (cover); ‘to offer to more specialized scholars new interpretations of many difficult verses.’ (p. lxi) — I doubt it.”
The claim of critical inquiry with an open mind would require that RISA should have taken up these issues seriously. At the very least, there should be panels of scholars, whose careers are outside her influence, to critique Wendy’s work, because of her enormous power in academe.
Prof. Antonio de Nicolas gives more hilarious insights[ lxiv ]:
“Wendy, as you know, wrote her Rg Veda putting my translations next to hers. By giving “maska lagao” to me, she avoided a bad review,…. The theoretical headings she uses for the Rg Veda are arbitrary… the jewel is her translation of “aja eka pada”. Literary it means “aja” = unborn, unmanifest, “eka” = one, “pada” = foot, measure. It is the unmanifest one foot measure of music present in the geometries of the “AsaT”, meaning, the Rg Vedic world of possibilities where only geometries live without forms. Well, Wendy translates it as “the one footed goat” because “aja” in Hebrew means goat. What is a one-footed goat doing in the Rg Veda?”
Commenting on Wendy’s book, “Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts”[ lxv ], Nicholas Kazanas writes how she is always obsessed with one meaning, the most sexual imaginable based on the greatest amount of stretching of the imagery, overruling all other interpretations and varied aspects of meaning:[ lxvi ]
“O’Flaherty seems to see only one function, the third one of fertility and sexuality, copulation, defloration, castration and the like: even bhakti ‘devotion’ is described in stark erotic terms including incest and homosexuality (1980: 87-99: 125-129). Surely, erotic terms could be metaphors for spiritual or mystical experiences as is evidence in so much literature?”
In her book titled, “Acseticism and Eroticism in the Myth of Siva,” there are many other problematic translations, such as:
· Tantra = Sexual practice: Hugh Urban on the AAR 2001panel on “Embracing Orientalism” emphasized that ‘tantra’ is not even an Indic category in the sense in which it is used now. It is a false Western reification, constructed in 19th century America, in order to appropriate it for popular use by a society starved for such erotica. This new construct became a thing-in-itself, and even got resold back into the Indian market very successfully. Certainly, the sexual idea of tantra is true also, but is not the only truth or even the main idea concerning the practice.
· Maithuna = Sexual intercourse: This is another simplistic definition given in Doniger’s glossary[ lxvii ]. But within the tantric tradition, this term means intercourse with the world with all our senses, the ultimate idea being to intensify this engagement so as to transcend the duality. It is used as a metaphor for a positive engagement with the world, a sort of radical realism — quite the opposite of the stereotype of Hinduism as being a ‘world negating’ religion. Whereas Wendy has been stuck in the lowest two chakras all her career, this other view from the higher chakras gives an entirely different perspective. She should give all the different levels and contexts of meaning, especially in an authoritative book where students expect to learn the definitive meaning of a term.
· Linga = Phallus: Wendy defines linga as: “The phallus, particularly of Siva.”[ lxviii ] She makes no attempt to nuance or to explain the diversity of interpretations and the levels of meanings at various stages of practice. Diana Eck is rather blunt about criticizing this misportrayal: “Christians look at the Hindu worship of the linga and see it as phallic worship, while Hindus look at the Christian sacrament of communion and are repulsed by its symbolic cannibalism.”[ lxix ]
It is little wonder that her “Purana Perennis” was criticized in Bakker, Hans T. et al[ lxx ], who felt that the racy books of Doniger are fast-food-like publications designed to attract attention, readership and sales, but are devoid of meticulous scholarship or authenticity.
The Queen’s Power:
Her students have been encouraged to go to India with the specific purpose of looking for data on “Christian persecution in India,” even though everyone knows that a genuine scholar cannot embark upon research with the conclusions already fixed[ lxxi ]. Much activism is being disguised as scholarship.
Reverse Anthropology and Psychoanalysis
Let’s Accept Kripal’s Principles:
I wish to utilize Kripal’s position on this new genre of scholarship, but in a manner than reverses the role of the parties: I want to apply similar methods to psychoanalyze and deconstruct the community of Eurocentric scholars themselves. Clearly, my quest for inter-cultural symmetry cannot be denied. Let us examine some implications.
“With Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” we can see quite easily just why the hermeneutic may in fact legitimately understand the text in ways quite different than those of the original author of culture: in effect, the historian’s present life-world and categories provide probes or techniques of analysis that were simply non-existent in the meaning-horizon of the text’s past. This present horizon of meaning fusing with the past horizon of the text produces a third, unprecedented space in which new meanings and possibilities of insight can appear. Hence Gadamer can write that the “meaning of a text goes beyond its author, not only occasionally, but always. Understanding is therefore not merely reproductive but also productive” (Ormiston and Schrift 224[ lxxii])… [T]he modern study of Ramakrishna extends and radicalizes the history of the texts themselves through the various fusions of horizons that it enacts in its own texts and critical practices (gender studies, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, etc.). What, of course, we end up with is radically new visions of who Ramakrishna was and what his life meant that are a bit shocking to someone locked into only one horizon of meaning (that is one cultural worldview, past or present) but entirely plausible to those who inhabit others…. Why, then can Americans such as myself, so deeply inspired by Hindu religious traditions, not think about them with all our religious categories and intellectual practices?”[ lxxiii]
“I do not honestly believe that the many important differences that have become apparent through this controversy can be fully resolved here or in any other format, as many of us are clearly operating out of radically different worldviews, moral values, and understandings of human sexuality and language.”[ lxxiv ]
Here is my restatement of Kripal’s position:
A) Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” is a method by which today’s people may reinterpret classical texts in ways that differ from the original author’s intent, and such new interpretations are legitimate, as they expand the orthodox meaning with “new meanings and possibilities of insight.”
B) Important differences between people of different worldviews cannot be fully resolved.
Implications of ‘A’ – New Methods of Interpretation:
Agreeing with his principle ‘A’, I wish to ask why, then, are Hindu scholars denigrated when they apply “probes or techniques of analysis,” such as the use of astronomical data in classical Indian texts, to bring about “fusions of horizons” and “radically new visions” pertaining to Indic traditions?[ lxxv ] Are these fresh conclusions “a bit shocking to someone locked into only one horizon of meaning” — namely, his own RISA cohorts’ boxed-in mentality? Why do they not critically examine these new claims, instead of rushing to condemn such scholarship as neo-Fascist, Fundamentalist, Hindu Nationalist and other assorted abuses, without any basis? Or is it that Gadamer’s theory of new hermeneutics works in only one direction — the direction in which the dominant culture, by imposing its foreign hermeneutics, wants to overrule the methods of interpretation indigenous to the colonized culture?
Taking this point further, why are Hindus’ own new religious interpretations not given credence and why are such interpretations dismissed as being not authentic — often by this arrogant, self-appointed cult of scholars? Do non-white people not have the same right of re-reinterpretation, without supervision by the dominant culture, and not as mere proxies?
Furthermore, why am I attacked when I use ‘A’ to deconstruct certain RISA members, even though I use the very same methods they themselves use? Could it be that my conclusions are “a bit shocking to someone locked into only one horizon of meaning?”
Finally, who — and on what basis — should determine which hermeneutics are valid and which are not? It cannot simply be a matter of prior usage or acceptance by the power structure, for that would perpetuate hegemony and go against the very innovation that Kripal espouses. In practice, how does one avoidadhikara (authority) being usurped by the dominant coterie based mainly on crude power? RISA has evaded debating this openly.
For removal of doubt, let me clarify that there are many instances in which agency is denied to free thinking individuals by both sides of the Left/Right divide. This is why orthodox classifications are no longer useful. For example, I recently received a criticism from someone who is self-defined as a “secularist..” His point is that it is inconsistent for me to simultaneously oppose both (i) the political ideologies of Hindutva and also (ii) those of the “secularist-Christian-Marxist” axis. Unfortunately, too many people are stuck in fixed ideologies of various kinds, and are unable to appreciate that their simplistic toolbox does not comprise an exhaustive set of possibilities, especially for someone who does not believe in finalities of dogma. Why should a la carte choice-making be banned?
I welcome the ‘A’ principle, provided it is equally available to all.
Chakras as Indic Hermeneutics:
One of the ways to think in an Indic framework is to use the Hindu-Buddhist Chakra System as a seven-layered hermeneutics. Imagine each chakra as a template of contexts, that may be used for multiple purposes. When a phenomenological experience is interpreted or processed from a given chakra, it provides a perspective corresponding to that chakra. The physical locations of the chakras are relevant to yogic or tantric transformative practices, whereas their archetypal meanings are what I am interested in here.
At the risk of oversimplification, I shall assume that the seven chakras may be grouped as follows:
· Lowest: The lower three chakras correspond to basic animal instincts. The lowest, near the anus, is about security. Chakra 2, near the genitals, is about pleasure and reproduction. Chakra 3, near the navel is about power over others.
· Middle: Chakras 4, 5 and 6 represent the positive human qualities, such as love, interconnection and bonding, altruistic vision, etc. In other words, these represent the higher qualities that all religions espouse. Behaviorism or any other strictly mechanistic worldview, being devoid of spirituality, might not recognize these, and would limit itself to the human needs and desires corresponding to the lowest chakras.
· Highest: The crown chakra corresponds to nondualism and transcendence — moksha, nirvana, etc. Most Indic traditions culminate in such a state. For Abrahamic religions, the mainstream orthodox worldview denies any such possibility, but there are fringe minority views, of mystics who are considered heretic by their traditions, that are compatible with chakra 7.[ lxxvi ] The rage against Hindu-Buddhist chakras by many scholars may be resulting from the tension between this heresy in their native traditions on the one hand, and their craving to want to appropriate Indic technologies of adhyatma-vidya on the other.
Depending on where a given scholar’s mental state is located in this hierarchy of contexts, things will appear corresponding to the template of the corresponding chakra. This means that the same thing may be seen at many levels — which is exactly what Hinduism stresses.
For instance, one may safely say that Wendy’s children mentioned above reside at the lowest two chakras, at least in their scholarship. Kripal is seeing Hinduism from the anal perspective (in keeping with his own homophobia, and insecurity about his Roma heritage), which is a valid view, but by no means “the” truth. It is just one perspective, and not the highest vantage point, and nor is it the place where one should remain stuck forever. Likewise, Doniger and Caldwell seem to oscillate between the anal chakra and the genital chakra. This is why their interest and depiction of Hinduism is what it is.
On the other hand, other RISA scholars such as Father Clooney, Chris Chapple, Ian Wicher, Edwin Bryant and many others, see Hinduism from the middle chakras, and are also able to theorize about chakra 7 in an authentic manner. They examine the practices of love, bhakti, elimination of kleshas (negative conditions), and rituals from the perspective of spiritual advancement. They look at the same things with a different pair of eyes than do Wendy’s children.
Note that these chakras are not fully independent of one another. A typical experience by a person involves a combination of multiple chakras, and this combination changes from one experience to another.
Also note that my use of chakras in this epistemological manner is unconventional, because they are conventionally used as transformational devices for spiritual advancement.
The History of Western Psychology may also be classified using these three categories of chakras:
· Freud spent his entire life stuck in chakras 1 and 2: hence his obsession in depicting everything in terms of sexual anomalies.
· Later on, Jung studied Hinduism intensely, practiced yoga based on Patanjali’s texts, and claimed to have achieved chakras 4 and 5. This enabled him to break away from Freud (a significant historical development in Western thought), to spiritualize Western science, and to reinterpret the Christian myths using a neo-Hindu worldview[ lxxvii ]. Given his enormous influence over the leading Western thinkers for several decades, he transformed Western thought radically by appropriating Indic concepts[ lxxviii ]. However, his subsequent followers erased his Indic influences, and he, too, replaced Indic metaphors with Greek-Abrahamic ones and with his own terms. Till the end, he denied the existence of the top chakra, because nonduality and transcendence went beyond what he was willing to accept empirically.
· Recently, Ken Wilber, after decades of studying Sri Aurobindo, Tantra and Kashmir Shaivism, has understood the non-dual state — at least intellectually. Hence, he has become the leading proponent of what amounts to the view from chakra 7 in the West, at this time.
Western anthropological and sociological dissections of Indic traditions focus on chakra 3 — dealing with power-plays between castes, genders, modern political movements, and so forth. The sanskaras(archetypes) of gladiators, and hence of many RISA scholars, are also located here. These depictions, just like the views from chakras 1 and 2, are not the crux of what the Hindu texts are trying to convey, but are often a caricature made to serve an agenda.
Given this frame of reference, I would consider Wendy’s children to be scholars operating from the anal and genital perspectives. Kali’s Child should have as part of its title: “An anal perspective of Ramakrishna.” Similarly, for several of the works of many others.
The scholarship published by Wendy’s children, based on a worldview resting at the lowest chakras, does not provide to their students the opportunity of the liberating glimpse afforded by the higher chakras. They essentialize Hinduism by reducing it to their own ( self-imposed ) station at the lowest chakras.
Islam is nowadays being dramatically repackaged for Western audiences so as to emphasize its higher levels of meaning — even though the vast majority of the 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide stick to the orthodox view. However, the case for multiple levels of meaning is relatively weak in any doctrine that is based on one book, one unique historical event, and one assertion that declares the doctrine to be final and closed forever. In spite of this, the repackaging is seriously afoot — which I feel is a good idea. But a different standard is being applied to Hinduism, despite the fact that its history and library of texts cry out loudly and clearly in favor of multiple layers of meaning and multiplicities of interpretive contexts. Hindus are simply being denied their agency.
The different levels of Hindu contexts should be used to interpret narratives, lingam, Kali, tantra, symbols, and various ceremonies and rituals. For instance, when seen from the middle chakras, the head represents the ego, and ‘cutting the head’ symbolically means getting rid of the ego. But Wendy’s children see the head as phallus, and cutting it as a message of castration, because they are stuck in the anal-genital perspective. It would be less problematic if they were to acknowledge that theirs in not a comprehensive view, and that it might not even be the most desirable or relevant view for the students.
Collapsing Hindu texts, practices, and symbolism to one Eurocentric low level is a great violence to the tradition. This is the problem with these scholars, not that they choose to interpret sexual symbolism. A. K. Ramanujan’s famous paper on the context-sensitive meaning of Indian thought receives much attention in academe, but its purport seems to be missed in the scholarship.
While the higher chakra interpretations are being plagiarized rapidly into all sorts of New Age, Judeo-Christian and “Western” scientific terminology, academic Hinduism is being reduced to the views from the lowest chakras. Carolyn Myss has claimed, based on highly stretched readings of obscure Christian texts that the chakras are Christian — equating them to the seven churches, and calling the highest chakra as the Christ Chakra. Likewise, Maslow studied this system and developed his multiple levels of human personality and needs, corresponding to the Hindu-Buddhist chakra levels — but few of his readers today know of this influence.
It is especially unethical for scholars to apply the lower chakra lens to interpret the higher chakras — seeing mystical experiences as “madness,” weirdness, or as various sexual pathologies.
Therefore, in keeping with Gadamer, Hindus should be allowed to use the chakra hermeneutics as outlined above.
Implications of ‘B’ – Competing Worldviews:
While Kripal’s ‘A’ principle allows me to defend the case for diversity of perspectives, and hence, desire a diversity of scholars, his ‘B’ principle says that these different views will not get fully reconciled.
This raises the serious question: which amongst the divergent views shall prevail in the marketplace of ideas and in classrooms, given that time and space segments are very small as compared to the material available, and hence critical choices must be made as to which spin to present Hinduism in.
This is where the power of the dominant culture — in controlling the distribution of scholarship, media, and classroom teaching — has resulted in Hinduism being reduced to the lower level in the spectrum of meanings.
To understand this asymmetric distribution, notice how Kripal concludes his response in Evam with: “Thank you again for giving me a voice.”[ lxxix ] However, he must be reminded that he has not at all been open to the idea of giving the Ramakrishna Mission any voice whatsoever in giving its perspective on his scholarship. He categorically refused to allow Swami Tyagananda’s rejoinder to get published at par with his own work, such that Tyagananda’s work would also get catalogued, indexed, and distributed to the same extent as his own. (This reminds me of many Christian positions that “tolerate” other religions, but cannot “respect” them, because the latter would be tantamount to legitimizing them in their own right. This archetype of Abrahamic exclusivism seems to be driving Kripal’s decision not to let Tyagananda’s views become available at par with his own, while at the same time, Kripal proclaims innovation, openness, and liberalism.)
It is this massively funded and politically backed, syndicated scholarship and its distribution, that legitimizes certain “probes or techniques of analysis,” and that brings about skewed and lopsided “fusions of horizons.” The “radically new visions” are, therefore, shaped by AAR Awards and other honors, Harvard appointments, and patronage from Wendy’s children and other cronies.
While the production of scholarship is open to all, distribution is what determines who has influence in shaping the norms. The Khyber Pass of the distribution of Hinduism scholarship in academics is carefully controlled by a small handful of well-entrenched scholar titans. This Khyber Pass consists of journals, university presses, appointment committees, curricula development, and conferences.
For instance, Wendy’s books are amongst the most widely prescribed in the college curricula on Hinduism. She is also the Editor of an encyclopedia of world religions that is an influential reference work. And she is rumored to be the editor of a new Encyclopedia of Hinduism that is being planned by Routledge.
Ethics of RISA:
One is left wondering: who, if anyone, oversees and critiques the power structure and methods of RISA and related entities, from an independent and autonomous perspective?
This also raises the ethical question of scholars misappropriating Indic traditions as their personal property, or on behalf of their sponsoring ideology, and thereby turning their scholarship into a mining expedition.
Wendy’s Child Syndrome
Scholars cannot avoid unconsciously superimposing their own psychological and cultural conditioning on to their scholarship, by pre-selecting the topics of interest, by filtering the data, by viewing the data through linguistic and methodological lenses that suit a given agenda or private psychographics — all this in order to confirm a prior conceptual formulation.
We have to thank Jeff Kripal for opening this door for research into a behavior pattern of scholars that I have termed the Wendy’s Child Syndrome. Now they are hardly in a position to resist this inquiry, or to call it rude or inappropriate. Wendy wields far greater power in Western academe than does Kali, and to fully appreciate certain academic disciplines, one must study her influence playing out through her cult’s psychosis.
One must classify the psychographics of Western scholars of India into categories. Below is the beginning of such a taxonomy, and over time, I expect this to be re-examined several times and elaborated continuously:
1) Western women, such as the famous professor herself, who are suppressed by the prudish and male chauvinistic myths of the Abrahamic religions, find in their study of Hinduism a way to release their innermost latent vasanas, but they disguise this autobiography as a portrayal of the “other” (in this case superimposing their obsessions upon Hindu deities and saints). For example, here is Wendy acknowledging projecting her psychosis onto her scholarship:[ lxxx ] “Aldous Huxley once said that an intellectual was someone who had found something more interesting than sex; in Indology, an intellectual need not make that choice at all…. Is sex a euphemism for god? Or is god a euphemism for sex? Or both!”
2) American Lesbian and Gay women’s vasanas, also suppressed by Abrahamic condemnation, seek private and public legitimacy, and therefore, interpret Indian texts for this autobiographical purpose.
3) Sexually abused Western women, seeking an outlet for anger, find in the Hindu Devi either a symbol of female violence or a symbol of male oppression — another cultural superimposition.
4) Given the Abrahamic God’s obsession with his enemy (the Devil), the dualism of ‘us versus them’ is unavoidable in Abrahamic theology. In this zero-sum game, Western Feminists must fight men and displace them by becoming like them, as there is no respectable place for women in the Western myths. Hence, this myth also plays out as a theory of ‘tutelage’ over women of color, as a sort of White Woman’s Burden. It is very fashionable for Indian women to get inducted into this by the lure of degrees, grants, publishing projects and other rewards. The more ethnic such an Indian woman appears, the more precious the catch. Meanwhile, all self-assured Hindu women are shunned as a threat to the paradigm — dismissed as not being the ‘real’ Hindus. The Hindu woman of the Western myth is therefore a straw-woman constructed to fit the needs of the White Woman’s Burden. Many Indian women activists, such as Madhu Kishwar, bitterly contest Western Feminist portrayals of Indian women.
Faulty Methods of Scholarship:
The hermeneutics, or methods of scholarship, deployed by the scholars who are afflicted with any of the above conditions, are characterized hereunder. Jeffrey Kripal’s case, and the other cases briefly summarized in this essay, clearly illustrates each of these:
- Many of the scholars lack the full knowledge of the cultural context and/or language to be able to legitimately supercede the beliefs of a living tradition, and yet this is what they have been doing.
Insiders to the tradition are excluded from participating as equals, being reduced to native informants of various sorts, or else are brought in under the tutelage, supervision, or authority of those who are licensed as Wendy’s Children. Those who resist don’t advance in their careers. Controlling who is licensed to be a scholar is crucial to the survival of this enterprise.
Many critical terms are simply mistranslated, or else are taken out of context. Words that have a wide range of meanings are collapsed into a simplistic meaning that is most sensational and fits the thesis of the scholar.
There is often complete disregard for the tradition’s higher layers of meaning, and there is dramatic use of the lenses of sexuality, social abuse, irrationality, and other features that serve to marginalize the seriousness of the tradition’s truth claims.
Exotic imagery and Bollywood-style effects are lavishly superimposed so as to fortify the depiction as being authentic. Even before Bill Gates developed cut-and-paste capabilities in his software, certain Western scholars had mastered the art of cutting-and-pasting Indian texts and contemporary narratives. This went along with the ability to sprinkle content from the scholar’s imagination and from his alien culture. The final product was then coated with hyper-jargon to make it incomprehensible and labeled as cutting-edge hermeneutics.
Evidence that would refute the thesis is ignored and suppressed.
The subject matter being studied is mapped by the scholar for his or her personal purposes, as personal “property” of the scholar, and, therefore, protected in a very patronizing manner. It ceases to belong to the community for whom it is a living tradition. As his/her property, the scholar will defend it fiercely, but at his/her own will, and subject it to U-Turns in the future. The true insider is excluded or reduced to native informant even in his ability to speak on behalf of the tradition.
Ph.Ds, academic papers, academic press books, book awards, and jobs at prestigious institutions are rewarded by committees who are part of the establishment, and who often suffer from this Syndrome. There is no independent review or audit of RISA’s policies and practices, contrary to what is normal in most organizations of significance.
When their scholarship is criticized by someone who is not under the control of their power structure, they simply ignore the criticism and refuse to deal with it squarely. If criticism persists, they personally attack the critic, as if to say: “How dare you, a mere native informant, talk back this way? Don’t you know your place?”
Any criticism or corrective scholarship that is from outside this tightly-controlled cult has a short shelf-life at best: it is not placed in major libraries, or catalogued for on-line search, or prescribed reading in colleges. In many instances, it is not even available for purchase at mainstream book retailers. Tyagananda’s response is a case in point: distribution is controlled by the syndicate.
Why This Is Very Important:
The Myth of the West is the most important myth to study today, as the West is the center of world power.Wendy’s Child Syndrome is that portion of the Western Myth that sustains the myth by eroticizing the ‘other’, superimposing its own archetypes as the lens, such as the idiosyncrasies listed above, and serving to reify and strengthen the Western Myth as a result.
Far from being independent thinkers, scholars afflicted with Wendy’s Child Syndrome are very much driven by vasana bundles into performing their roles within this Western Myth. They lack agency to a large extent, as the archetypes of their myths compel them to perform in predictable ways.
Prof. Narasingha Sil describes this[ lxxxi ]:
“I have a vision of the descent of the ‘avataras’ of the missionaries of yester years who sought to bring the divine light in the land of the benighted pagans and thus make them civilized and Christianized. I see here these ‘avataras’ as the neo-missionaries hailing from the great secular temples of learning of the powerful and resourceful Western countries and possessing impressive credentials, considerable personal charm and social grace, including, above all, a remarkable gift of packaging, processing, and producing information. Yet, beneath their bonhomie and academic garb (empathy, postmodernist skepticism of positivist knowledge, etc), they are tough customers who mean business, literally as well as metaphorically. This business, alas, echoes the agenda of their simple hearted and minded forbears: to relegate a pagan faith of a distant disturbed land to exoticism and esoterism to affirm its “otherness” and at the same time, in contrast to the earlier mission of conversion of souls, make a name and also some bucks along the way by aligning the distant “other” with the normalized and socialized “others” of their own culture. The ‘Iila’ of this academic market economy as played out in the hullabaloo surrounding ‘Kali’s Child’ thus achieves the twin objectives of discovering the human (in this case homosexual) Ramakrishna and selling him to the campus communities (where acceptance of alternative sexuality, often described as “queer lifestyle,” have become a badge of respect) throughout the country.”
“’Kali’s Child’ is a product, par excellence, of a relatively new fad — postorientalism. The currently fashionable and freely and frivolously used methods of critical and literary theory, which is a product of the West like its adversary Enlightenment rationality, is keen on McDonaldizing (and thus homogenizing) norms and values of “other” culture and world views. This agenda is parallel to the political and economic evangelization of the world in the ‘mantra’ of free market and democracy — a spin off from the imperialistic Christian evangelization of the pagan orient. Hence the penchant for the pathological on the part of the author of ‘Kali’s Child’.”
Edward Said also articulated the geopolitical injustice caused by this genre of scholarship: “The fetishization and relentless celebration of “difference” and “otherness” … “the spectacularization of anthropology” … cannot easily be distinguished from the process of empire.”[ lxxxii ]
Frequent Objections I Hear
Drafts of this and similar writings were criticized by a few RISAologists as being rude and “negative”. However, anyone who has seen RISA scholars’ own ad hominems, against those who dare to criticize them, would quickly point out the double standards.[ lxxxiii ] The proclaimed scholarly standards should be demonstrated. But there are other justifications for me to be making this challenge.
It is natural to find Hindus using satire, parody and caricatures to criticize those scholars who proclaim god-like status. Nicholas Gier’s book used “Titanism” as a metaphor, to describe gurus who are larger than life, and who assume unquestioned authority. In the Indian mind, the West has a Titanic presence. I submit that there are Scholar Titans dominating the field, and who have hijacked the Vedic authority and assumed the position of final authority on Hinduism for themselves — like the British assumed the position of rulers ofIndia.
Scholars who properly understand this Hindu habit of summoning gods down from the clouds and poking fun at them, would not be so angry at our sharp criticism of them. Since we feel disenfranchised, as outcasts in the academic study of our own religion, we resort to the traditional method of dealing with arrogance even with the gods.
Gerald Larson has accused the Diaspora, being outside the academicians’ sphere of control, of trying to “hijack” his profession. But it has been argued in response that hijacking is a form of theft, and since the faith community is the real owner of the tradition, it is the alien scholars who have hijacked it. These arguments from both sides are the same as the British-Gandhi arguments about self-rule. Scholars’ attitude of self-glorification and expectation of obeisance from Indians, and especially from Hindus, reminds me of the way the British East India Company had to be addressed by the subjugated Indians as “Company Sarkar.”
Given that Indology was started by the East India Company as part and parcel of colonialism, RISA appears to have stepped into those shoes and proclaimed itself as the new Sarkar. Dilip Chakrabarti, on the faculty of the Archaeology Department at CambridgeUniversity, explains very emphatically:[ lxxxiv ]
“…one of the underlying assumptions of Western Indology is a feeling of superiority in relation to India, especially modern India and Indians. This feeling of superiority is expressed in various ways. On one level, there are recurrent attempts to link all fundamental changes in the Indian society and history to Western intervention in some form. The image of ancient India which was foisted on Indians through hegemonic texts emanating from Western schools of Indology had in mind an India that was steeped in philosophical, religious and literary lores and unable to change herself without external influence, be it in the form of Alexander the Great, Roman Ships carrying gold or the Governor-Generals of the British East India Company. On a different level, expressions of Western superiority can be more direct and encompass a wide range of forms: patronizing and/or contemptuous reviews of Indian publications, allusions to personal hardships while working in India, refusal to acknowledge Indians as “agents of knowledge” or even blatant arrogance which makes one wonder if the civilized values of Western Academia have not left its Indology mostly untouched…”
“After all, Western Indology is an essential by-product of the process of establishment of Western dominance in India. Racism — in this case a generic feeling of superiority in relation to the natives — was, quite logically, one of the major theoretical underpinnings of this process. It is but natural that Western Indology should carry within it a lot of this feeling of superiority…”
The Infinity Foundation was recently attacked for providing grants to scholars (alleged as being a way to influence research). But then it was loudly and clearly pointed out by me, and reinforced by some RISA members, that thousands of times larger funding of Indian studies in the West comes from the Government, the Church, and various Western multinational interests. Given how many RISA scholars have many skeletons in the closet, and that the data on their funding sources is largely available in the public domain, my call for a systematic disclosure and analysis of all funding sources was ignored and hushed up. My point is that Indians’ funding the humanities should be seen in the context of the very large funding by Western interests, along with the funding by other non-Western minorities, such as The Japan Foundation, Korea Foundation, The China Institute, and a large number of Islamic and Arab sources.
Insiders/Outsiders and Objectivity:
The Hindus’ own views of Hinduism are considered unreliable and biased. But it has been already pointed out that outsiders to Indic traditions are not neutral, because they are insiders to other traditions, which also happen to be competitors in the very real battle for market share. Furthermore, the adhyatma-vidya(inner science) level of interpretation is what the texts and traditions often call for, and this is based on the experience of the practitioners. The “outsiders” can often be traced to the mentality of the “one book” culture lurking beneath the mask of objectivity.
Psychoanalyzing RISA’s Anger
Perception of Threat to the Monopoly:
RISA’s internal power structure encourages many chowkidars to control entry, and sepoys to go out on hit-and-run missions — in the sense of ad hominems – against those who question their methods, power structure, or conclusions.
When, in 1995, I started to examine the academic scholarship about India, I was told many times that I must first pay homage to the power bosses of this club. My initial reason for not patronizing the RISA bosses was to gain an independent perspective, in the same manner as corporate executives bring independent consultants to tell them what the insiders hide. I wanted to hear voices and perspectives that are marginalized by the power structure, as is often the case in any incestuous and corrupt institution. Why empower the fox even further to manage the hen house?
But I was repeatedly warned that to be considered legitimate, I must invite the bosses to lead or at least to participate in each activity that I do. Even if they did not accept, the invitation would provide us with “protection.” However, my entire corporate career has been fighting one entrenched hegemony after another, and the notion of playing along with the flow of power has never been appealing. I invite an individual when it makes sense based strictly on merit, and not when it does not make sense. Period.
In the computer industry in the 1970s, I enjoyed working for the underdog minicomputer and then the personal computer suppliers, at a time when the mighty IBM mainframe ruled supreme. Subsequently, in the telecom field, once again I enjoyed working on emerging paradigms that challenged old monolithic behemoths. As a management consultant, I specialized in studying industry structures to find vulnerable spots where new entrepreneurial players could enter and ultimately defeat the old (and inevitably inefficient)nawabs. Facilitating change has always appealed to me. I prefer working with those who challenge the status quo and the monopolistic mechanisms.
Therefore, the academic field of humanities is not the first time that I have encountered entrenched bureaucracies, the old boys’ (and old girls’) networks, with their hostilities against “outsiders” — first ignored as being unqualified, and then seen as threats to the incumbents of power. The price of shaking up this neocolonized field of India studies includes facing insults.
I have been studying the anthropological and psychoanalytical methods used by these scholars, and have applied the very same methods to study the scholars themselves. It is fascinating to see them as an exotic, strange and peculiar community. Their attacks against their critics provide further data points for research. The emperors and empresses are often intellectually naked!
The Colonizer’s Mentality:
Here is one theory I propose about why some RISA scholars are so desperate and angry. These scholars are used to dealing with certain categories of Indians only, and when someone does not fit any of these stereotyped “boxes”, their attempts to apply their standard tools fail, leading them to great frustration:
- Many Western scholars of Indian religions are used to manipulating and dealing with poor villagers inIndia, whom they term “native informants,” and from whom they extract “research data” using their own biased filters. This has been done often with the collusion of Indian scholars, NGOs and intermediaries. The native informants feel obliged to dish out what is expected of them by the firangi scholar, who has a lot of grant money to throw at the data gathering process.
In more recent times, the scholars have also had to deal with a second category of Indians: these are the semi-ignorant and naïve Diaspora students sitting in their classes, on topics such as “Introduction to Hinduism.” Given the power and knowledge imbalance, scholars have been able to adjust their teachings to not seem blatantly anti-Hindu, and many have adopted deceptively friendly demeanors and portrayals that often succeed in fooling the youth into imagining that these scholars genuinely respect their traditions and that what they teach must be authentic. Duplicity and ambiguity are used as strategic tools, because it is widely believed that Hindus are non-confrontational by nature. Here, a classic tool of British colonial entrapment has been used. This is best described in the words of the historian John Keay: “Other foes made their intentions clear by denunciations of one’s family or religion, and by ravaging the countryside and plundering the towns. The British, generally so restrained in their language and so disciplined in the field, were very different. They could make hostility look like friendship and conquest like a favor. It was difficult to rally support against such tactics.”[ lxxxv ]
Prof. Antonio de Nicolas explains the obsession to claim superior rationality for European people:[ lxxxvi ]
“Nothing of what RISA scholars claim of yoga or “Hindu Religion” has much to do with Indic texts and the practice of religion in India. Notice also, that you are dealing mostly with the University of Chicago. My personal experience with them in philosophy is as bad as yours in religion. [According to these scholars,] Indic texts have no rationality, they are mythical and therefore not historical and therefore false or irrational. Have you asked yourself why? My conclusions come from the way they handled history in ancient times when those same scholars were called Akkhedians , stole writing from the Phoenicians and rewrote history for everyone else so that their dates would make them be the first to hold knowledge, the One (conceptual) God, and mostly revelation, the prophetic voice. Of course we know all this is wrong , but their attitude has not changed. I was told that it was impossible for a Hindu, mythic text to be philosophical for it was not historical and therefore irrational. My answer is that to proclaim one single rationality as RATIONAL is sheer irrationality and conceptual imperialism.”
Prof. Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak explains this denial of Indians’ agency by Western historians, to make the same point:[ lxxxvii ]
“…it is almost as if we don’t exist. That is to say, colonials, even upper-class colonials, do not exist as agents. It is not as though these historians don’t know a lot of people like that when they go for their fieldwork and so on. But when it comes to the work they present we never hear of people…you never see anything that puts them on the same level of human agency.”
Prof. Dilip Chakrabarti explains how the West has bred and bought off a whole generation of elitist Indians, and how this axis operates today:[ lxxxviii ]
“…after Independence… [Indians] – especially those from the ‘established’ families – were no longer apprehensive of choosing History as an academic career…. To join the mainstream, the historians could do a number of things: expound the ruling political philosophy of the day, develop the art of sycophancy to near-perfection or develop contacts with the elite in bureaucracy, army, politics and business. If one had already belonged to this elite by virtue of birth, so much the better. For the truly successful in this endeavour, the rewards were many, one of them being the easy availability of ‘foreign’ scholarships/fellowships, grants, etc. not merely for themselves but also for their protégés and the progeny. On the other hand, with the emergence of some specialist centers in the field of South Asian social sciences in the ‘foreign’ universities, there was no lack of people with different kinds of academic and not-so-academic interest in South Asian history in those places too, and the more clever and successful of them soon developed a tacit patron-client relationship with their Indian counterparts, at least in the major Indian universities and other centers of learning. In some cases, ‘institutes’ or ‘cultural centres’ of foreign agencies were set up in Indian metropolises themselves, drawing a large crowd of Indians in search of short-term grants or fellowships, invitations to conferences, or even plain free drinks.”
We Are Not Native Informants Any More!
Therefore, the specific kind of Indian that certain RISAologists are most uncomfortable in dealing with is anyone who is already successful in a “Western” organization, and especially anyone who has managed over a large number of Westerners for an extensive period of time. Such a person is not likely to idolize them, or be easily taken for a ride. Any Indian who has succeeded in dealing with Westerners on their own turf must have enough insight into the Western mind, its strengths and weaknesses, and must be self-confident. Scholars can neither exploit such a person as a “native informant,” nor patronize him in the same manner as a young NRI student looking for a good grade. For one thing, any such Indian is bound to challenge them, rather than accepting their scholarship at face value, and is likely to be skilled at negotiation.
The Eurocentric superiority complex, so blatant among many aggressive RISA members, is a reaction and Freudian cover for their deeply-rooted inferiority complexes and insecurities. Just as most East India Company officers working in India were low-class Englishmen, often from poor and semi-educated backgrounds, who suddenly transformed themselves into wealthy and powerful rulers after arriving in India, many RISA scholars are rather poorly regarded within mainstream Western society, and yet boss over Indians using their assumed authority.
This has to do with their personal backgrounds. After early years of hippie-like wandering around to “find themselves,” many of them successfully “became somebody” when they were nurtured by Indic traditions of various sorts. This led to the academic route, and eventually to becoming high-ranking scholars who can boss over the very traditions that gave them sustenance and made them who they are. Few such scholars have any alternative skills to fall back on within the Western career market. Hence, it is understandable that their bloated egos must cling on to Indic traditions as their personal property.
Meanwhile, within the Western academy, the more specialized someone becomes, the less oversight and due diligence is possible, because there are very few others who are able to challenge them within an ultra specialized field. This breeds cults of micro-specialties, each of which assumes a life of its own.
When assertive Indians show up, the tables are suddenly turned, as described below:
- The Western scholar of the humanities is sometimes unable to deal with the reality that he/she is lower on the West’s own scale of rational training, as compared to successful Indians who are well-educated in science, engineering, medicine, finance, management, entrepreneurship or other areas where analytical skills are critical. (I have challenged certain professors of Hinduism to compare their own SAT college entrance scores with those of the average Indian student in their class, especially in math, to decide whether they should be portraying the Indic traditions as being less rational than the West. I have yet to find anyone accepting this challenge.) Therefore, this business of depicting the Indic traditions as somehow irrational or backward is unsustainable in front of the rational Indians, except by distortion of the facts as illustrated earlier in this essay. It is ironic that some scholars hide behind their “dense writings” with great pride, failing to appreciate that a solid experience in theoretical physics, or in writing software compilers or network protocols, or in negotiating complex 500-page business contracts, involves high-caliber, very terse and rigorous work. Frankly, far too many writings from the religious studies are poorly structured, loosely argued, and sometimes outright illogical.
Eurocentric scholars are used to exerting power over Indians who are in Ph.D programs, or are seeking jobs in academe, or must appease them for the sake of being included in conferences or publishing projects, or would like a favorable recommendation for a tenure. Many Indians thus get reprogrammed as sepoys to serve the RISA Raj.[ lxxxix ] However, when someone is secure, and does not want or need any such favors that they could possibly offer, Eurocentric scholars feel terribly insecure and powerless.
Most Indians who have encountered scholarly nonsense of the kind described in this essay, who are successful professionally to be assertive, and who are also independent of the academy, are simply ignorant of the subject matter to be able to deal with the scholars on their own turf. This is why, from 1995 through 2000, I devoted almost all of my time reading hundreds of academic books and papers in a wide variety of humanities subjects. Most scholars have read less than this, and are too narrow in their knowledge of academic publications. They are far too busy with administrative and other routines to be able to read so much. This makes any knowledgeable challenger especially threatening to their sense of cultural and personal superiority.
The combination of all three factors mentioned above creates an interesting reversal of the conventional power structure in the field of India related studies. (This is analogous to the complaint from Western corporate women that men often find it hard to respect a female boss, because the conventional power structure is reversed.) They would love to get rid of such “threatening” persons who call out their shortcomings, so that they may go about their exploitative scholarship unimpeded.
Let us now re-examine the anger of Gerald Larson and his cohorts, over the alleged “hijacking” of Hinduism studies by Hindus. Any attempt by Hindus to claim agency, or to take charge of their own affairs — be it looking after their poor people without Mother Teresa or other Western movements, or be it doing scholarship to interpret and reinterpret their dharmas as they choose — is seen as an attack on the Eurocentric person’s control over agency, which includes the Eurocentric person’s right to license those neocolonized persons he chooses to appoint under terms and conditions and under supervision ultimately controlled by Eurocentric people. One has to psychoanalyze the strange behavior of many neocolonialized Indian scholars in this light.
I am quick to add that I personally know and work with many Western scholars, both in RISA and outside, who have distanced themselves from Eurocentrism, and who, in fact, go out of their way to help the neocolonized people restore their religions and knowledge systems. Clearly, such individuals are not working from chakra 3 of power plays, but are able to deal from the middle chakras. This is a very hopeful sign and is to be encouraged.
Because of the foregoing, if Hindus apply psychoanalysis to deconstruct some of the Western scholars’ own exotic personal lives — wild sex, exotic “trips” and affairs, various pathologies, power games, U-Turns to/from India — enough to make a Bollywood serial, it is condemned as being an “attack” on the high priest(esse)s. I am routinely attacked for exercising my freedom to do psychoanalysis of certain scholarship that I have described as the Wendy’s Child Syndrome.
Does the academy, as most good organizations do, conduct routine post-mortems of its processes? Should the cult of scholars itself be under the anthropologist’s lens for ethnographic studies? Should it invite the Hindus to criticize the scholars’ work, rather than throwing them out with abusive name-calling?
Every inbred organization defends its integrity by citing its so-called ‘independent’ reviews. But the standard definition of ‘independent,’ as used in business and law, would fail to qualify RISA scholars as being truly independent, given the well-entrenched traditions of blackballing, and the whisper circuit. Criticism that is controlled and licensed by those who are to be criticized, is not legitimate criticism. Therefore, isn’t silencing the ‘external’ critic dangerous to the integrity and credibility of RISA?
When all other arguments fail to silence the independent critics, they are attacked personally as being “anti-social” elements. This is an entirely arbitrary ruling, without any critical analysis by fellow RISAologists.
Scholars must stand up to challenge their cohorts when they essentialize an entire Internet discussion list as though it were homogenous, or when they essentialize the Diaspora with a few simplistic dismissive adjectives. By engaging in such rhetoric, and poorly researched at that — namely, the overdone habit of branding critics as “fundamentalists” or “nationalists” among other essences — they discredit RISA under whose banner they function.
Furthermore, activism that opposes the scholars’ positions is condemned as being unscholarly, and yet the RISA’s Internet archive amply documents routine activism by the same scholars for their own pet causes.
My Proposal to RISA
I wish to make the same offer to RISA, as Kripal made to Hindus, when he wrote:[ xc ]
“I am eager to resolve these issues in a friendly and open-hearted spirit that can be as faithful as possible to academic standards of free inquiry and intellectual honesty and to the felt needs of significant segments of the Hindu community, whose religious sensibilities I am all too painfully aware of.”
Substitute “ideologies and presuppositions” in lieu of “religious sensibilities,” and “RISA” in lieu of “Hindu,” and you have a fair representation of my offer.
Kripal regrets if he hurt the feelings of 800 million Hindus, viewing it as collateral damage. Likewise, I consider any hurt feelings of the less than 100 scholars who belong to Wendy’s powerful club as unfortunate side-effects of this search for inter-civilizational balance and harmony. The main difference is that, unlike Kripal, I subscribe to symmetry between the parties in the true spirit of samvad (dialog).
On the other hand, if RISA continues to fight every attempt at dialog initiated by practitioners of the Indic traditions, especially without initiatives from its own side, then it should beware of Swami Tyagananda’s warning:
“If contemporary scholars condone sloppy documentation and self-serving translations to support a thesis, then the future of the present scholarship looks bleak to me.”[ xci ]
The denial of agency to Indians who are outside the academy’s controls and supervision continues to hide questionable practices, including potential academic violations, and violation of social and personal ethics, ironically, by certain scholars who wear masks of human rights activism. There are social-ethical implications of degrading the dignity of American minorities, by shaming them for their culture. Rights of individual scholars must be balanced against rights of cultures and communities they portray, especially minorities that often face intimidation. Scholars should criticize but not define another’s religion.
[i] (I) Dave Freedholm, a schoolteacher in Princeton, first brought the Philadelphia Inquirer article to our attention, on Nov 28, 2000, when he posted on the IT egroup the following: “One of my students brought me a newspaper article from the Philadelphia Inquirer (11/19/00) entitled “Big-screen Caddy is a Hindu Hero in Disguise.”……” Later, Dave Freedholm posted the entire article. Following is the relevant excerpt that I used in my essay: “”Big-screen caddy is Hindu hero in disguise” By David O’Reilly, Inquirer Staff Writer,Philadelphia Inquirer. “Myth scholar Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago was on hand earlier this month to lecture on the Gita. “The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think,” she said, in a lecture titled “The Complicity of God in the Destruction of the Human Race.” Throughout the Mahabharata, the enormous Hindu epic of which the Gita is a small part, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war in order to relieve “mother Earth” of its burdensome human population and the many demons disguised as humans. “The Gita is a dishonest book; it justifies war,” Doniger told the audience of about 150, and later acknowledged: “I’m a pacifist. I don’t believe in ‘good’ wars.” Several in the audience objected to her reading of the Gita, but she made no apologies and “begged” her listeners to plunge deeper into the Upanishads and other great literature of Hinduism.” Prof. Doniger now claims that the Philadelphia Inquirer did not quote her properly, but, to the best of my knowledge, the Philadelphia Inquirer has not retracted the story.
(II) SOME DEFINITIONS USED IN THIS ESSAY: (i) Eurocentric: The view of the world as seen fromEurope. Not about a race. Europeans could be, and often are, non Eurocentric. (ii) Orientalism: When a Eurocentric view is used to portray non-Western cultures. (iii) Macaulayite: An ethnic Indian who adopts a Eurocentric view. Usually linked to ignorance of Indian Classics, plus some inferiority complex, identity problem, or simply a matter of conditioning by the system. I happen to know more Indian Eurocentrics than Western ones. (iv) The term, “Wendy’s Child” was first used in a scholarly forum by Prof. Jack Hawley in a panel of the AAR 2001. But I believe that he was quoting another person. I looked at Kripal and a few other Wendy’s students in the audience, and they appeared to enjoy this description. From that moment, it seems to have gained currency. (v) Psychosis: A mental disorder, trauma or phobia, such as, but not limited to, homophobia or sexual abuse or repression of sexuality, that could result in the person’s scholarship becoming prejudiced.
(III) The overriding attitude intended in this essay was expressed by Sanjay Garg on 11/29/00: “We should not behave like paranoids. Let us show how mature we are in dealing with these situations. Let us not put ourselves in the situation of Muslims when they reacted to the “Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie.” I wish to also explain that my criticism does not imply that every RISA scholar is being described by every Act of the RISA Lila — the Indic traditions do have a large number of friends in the Academy, many of whom have privately encouraged and assisted in my critical writings. Much of this information is already known inside the academy, and now it is merely being brought to the general community’s knowledge.
(IV) This Act 1 of the RISA Lila basically covers the following postcolonial studies issues, which should NOT be taken as anything personal concerning any individuals, but as general systemic issues: (A) How legitimate is Freudian psychoanalysis of non-Western religions, when the same has been rejected within Western academics? (B) What should be the new equation between insiders and outsiders in the post-9/11 scholarship process? (C) How authentic are the various translations and interpretations of Sanskrit and Indian languages that Western Indologists have dominated since over 200 years and made into “standard” meanings today? (D) What ethics committees and ombudsmen should be installed in humanities academic associations, such as AAR, that would allow the community voice to have a hearing in such matters as were illustrated in the essay? I hope the specific examples in the essay are seen not as the end in themselves but as door openers to start a wider inquiry into the study of the non-West by the West.
(V) This essay is about cross-cultural hermeneutics as noted above. The “Hindutva Vs. Secularism” debate is NOT what this essay is about. I reject both those reductionist models, anyway. There is a re-assessment, by thinkers from both sides of the old divide, to define new categories. The Int’l Conference planned by IAHR in Delhi, 2003, hopes to address issues such as “secularism” within classical dharma texts, so that dharma and secularism are not necessarily mutually exclusive. So I hope the readers of this essay do not superimpose other agendas and debates, no matter how intense or important.
[iii] Meaning “here is what religion X claims as its truth,” and not “here is the truth that I, as the instructor, want you to believe.”
[iv] Lila usually means divine play, as in rasa lila. In Spanish, Risa means laughter (as per Antonio deNicholas.) Here, RISA Lila is the farce of certain scholars, who take themselves too seriously, and fear that the Indian community they study will find out what they say behind the community’s back.
[v] [v] Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions in the DivinitySchool,University of Chicago. Note that she claims that the Philadelphia Inquirer has misquoted her in the quote mentioned at the front of this essay, but it must also be noted that the Inquirer has not retracted its statement.
[vii] Wendy loves this idea of her children and even grandchildren as a sort of cult: “In a sense you are my past; I worked with you when I was younger. But in a much more important sense you are my future, my living academic Nachlasse, my Doktor-kinder (if I may invert the usual phrase). And as you continue to send me your own students, who become my Doktor-grandchildren (one of whom — Liz Wilson, out of Billy Mahony, out of O’Flaherty — is beginning to send me Doktor-great-grandchildren), you have provided me with a parampara more enduring than my own books, let alone my flesh.” (See: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/research/criterion/autumn2000/mandala_3.html )
[viii] Wendy’s Children is used metaphorically to denote her followers and those who share her mentality. Many but not all are also her students. Conversely, not everyone who has a Ph.D from Wendy is necessarily a Wendy’s Child.
[ix] Kripal, Jeffrey J. “Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and teachings of Ramakrishna.”University of Chicago Press, 1998.
[x] The complete 130-page response by Swami Tyagananda is posted at:http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/s_rv/s_rv_tyaga_kali1_frameset.htm
[xi] A good example of an outsider’s account where an insider is invited to write the final chapter as a response is Father Francis Clooney’s recent book, “Hindu God, Christian God,” in which Dr. Paramil Patil was asked to write a response in the final chapter from the Hindu perspective. However, Kripal gave all sorts of excuses as to why this had never been done and could not be done by him.
[xii] “Kali’s Child Revisited, or Didn’t Anyone Check the Documentation?” by Swami Tyagananda, in “Evam: Forum on Indian Representations,” 1: 1 & 2 (2002).pp.173-190. Contact for Evam is: Professor Makarand Paranjape, English Department, JNU, Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
[xiii] Sil, Narasingha. “Is Ramakrishna a Vedantin, a Tantrika or a Vaishnava? – An Examination.” Asian Studies Review 21.2-3(1997):220.
[xiv] Kali’s Child.p.3
[xv] Kali’s Child.pp2-3.
[xvi] Kali’s Child.pp.28-29.
[xvii] Kali’s Child.pp.4-5.
[xviii] Kali’s Child.pp.298-99.
[xix] Kali’s Child.p.2.
[xx] Kali’s Child.p.76.
[xxi] Kali’s Child.p.301.
[xxii] Kali’s Child.p.66.
[xxiii] Kali’s Child.p.160.
[xxiv] Kali’s Child.p.65. The word ‘vyakulata’ can indeed be used for longing, with a slight erotic sense. However, in the context under consideration, it denotes just plain anxiety and longing for someone who is dear.
[xxv] Kali’s Child.p.67.
[xxvii] Kali’s Child.p.57.
[xxviii] Kali’s Child. pp.xxi-xxii.
[xxix] Huston Smith, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring 2001, p.2.
[xxxi] He pronounces his name ‘Cry-pal’, and says the name came from his father who is a dark complexioned Roma/Gypsy married to a white German woman. Kripal told me about his ethnic ancestry at AAR 2000.
[xxxii] See Sil’s postscript of March 22nd 2002, at:http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/s_rv/s_rv_sil_kali_frameset.htm
[xxxiii] Wendy Doniger, “When a Lingam is just a Good Cigar: Psychoanalysis and Hindu Sexual Fantasies.” In “Vishnu on Freud’s Desk”, Jeffrey Kripal and T.G. Vaidyanathan (Eds.). OxfordUniversityPress. Delhi. 1999. pp290-291.
[xxxiv] As defined in this essay, the Syndrome has gone beyond Wendy’s own students, as in the case ofCaldwell.
[xxxv] “Vishnu on Freud’s Desk,” by Jeffrey Kripal and T. G. Vaidyanathan (Eds.). OxfordUniversity Press.Delhi. 1999. p.339.
[xxxviii] “Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Mother Kali.” OxfordUniversity Press.New Delhi/New York. 1999.
[xxxix] Humes’ review of the book in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, November 2001.pp.901-02. Page numbers in parenthesis refer to Caldwell’s book. I feel that Humes set a very low standard for what it would take to convince her of Caldwell’s thesis.
[xl] A forthcoming essay will focus on the syndrome personified by Caldwell.
[xli] Posted on 5th May 1998, at the RISA-L discussion list, which is reserved for exclusive use by academic scholars in their pursuit of “objective” scholarship.
[xlii] See my earlier column, “The Axis of Neocolonialism”, for a short summary of The U-Turn Model.
[xliv] Bibliography on Criticisms of Eurocentrism: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/h_rs/h_rs_malho_euro_frameset.htm
[xlv] Courtright interprets Hinduism from various perspectives, including historical, anthropological, theological (including use of Abrahamic categories), psychological, etc.
[xlvi] Ganesa, by Paul Courtright. OxfordUniversity Press. p.121.
[xlix] Private email received on August 28th 2002.
[l] As a recent example of the former category, one has to see the hateful diatribe by Aditya Adharkar, who recently got his Ph.D from Wendy, against the WAVES (Vedic) Conference, on the rather inconsistent complaint that the Vedic Conference did not include Islam, and that it was about Indic Contributions! Then he went on to make further high profile scenes as if to score points with Wendy’s Club.
[li] Patrick Bresnan, Awakening: An Introduction to the History of Eastern Thought (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001) 98-101.
[lii] Prof. Robert D Baird, of The University of Iowa, in “Religious Conflict in Contemporary India,” Religious Studies in Kansas. Vol. 2, No.1. Fall 1993.
[liii] See the later sub-section of this column titled, “Chakras as an Indic Hermeneutical Lens,” for an explanation of different levels of meanings.
[liv] Stanley N. Kurtz, ”Psychoanalytic Approaches to Hindu Child Rearing.” In “Vishnu on Freud’s Desk”, Jeffrey Kripal and T.G. Vaidyanathan (Eds.). OxfordUniversity Press. Delhi. 1999.pp.199-200.
[lv] Stanley N. Kurtz, “All the Mothers Are One: Hindu India and the Cultural Reshaping of Psychoanalysis.”ColumbiaUniversity press. 1992.
[lvi] P.134. as quoted in Cynthia Humes’ book review in The Journal of Asian Studies.
[lvii] Cynthia Humes’ book review in The Journal of Asian Studies.
[lviii] All the Mothers….p.4. I am indebted to Cynthia Humes for bringing this and other information to my attention after her review of my draft.
[lix] All the Mothers….p.143. I am indebted to Cynthia Humes for bringing this and other information to my attention after her review of my draft.
[lx] Veena Oldenburg, “Dowry Murder,” OxfordUniversity Press.2002.
[lxii] The posts were removed from the original archive, and were reposted at the following URLs:
For Jaiminiya Brahmana http://listserv.liv.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind9511&L=indology&P=R1031
For Manu http://listserv.liv.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind9511&L=indology&P=R1167
For Rig Veda http://listserv.liv.ac.uk/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind9511&L=indology&P=R1167
[lxiii] Manu 8.134, on weights, is translated by Doniger as follows: “Six (white) ‘mustard seeds’ equal one medium-sized ‘barley-corn’, and three ‘barley-corns’ make one ‘berry’; five ‘berries’ make a ‘bean’, sixteen ‘beans’ a ‘gold-piece’. 135. Four ‘gold-pieces’ equal a ‘straw’….” Witzel’s criticism of the above translation is as follows: “First logic or common sense: Take 3x5x16x4 (960) barley corns and weigh them… and see whether they equal any blade of straw. Even if you believe, with Herodotos, in gold digging ants and other wonders in India, I haven’t seen Indian (rice/barley) straw of that weight…But we forget simple philology, the hand-maiden of any translation that is supposedly better than Buehler’s in Victorian English and the recent partial one by Derrett, etc. The last straw is : If you check pala in the Petersburg dictionary (PW), or even in its copy, Monier Williams’ dict., you see that pala ‘straw’ is attested only with some lexicographer, who turns out to be Hemacandra (according to the PW, in his AbhidhaanacintaamaNi 1182), that is, and the word apparently is attested only once). If you check the surrounding words, you find palaala in Manu, Mbh. (and Atharvaveda: palaalii) which mean ‘straw’; and palada’ (AV) of similar meaning. It is clear that Hemacandra got his truncated (hapax!) word pala from the well known word for RstrawS palaala/ii / palaada’ (cf.TURNER 7958) — while pala (Turner 7952!) always meant ‘a certain weight/measure’ and also ‘meat’.– Mayrhofer suggests an Indo-European (see: palaava “chaff,grass”), and a Dravidian (Tamil: pul etc.) etymology. Common sense apart, to establish pala ‘straw’, [Doniger] should at least have searched in texts of similar nature and time level before accepting the meaning of ‘straw’ in Manu.”
[lxiv] In a private email on August 28th 2002. Prof. de Nicolas is Emeritus Prof of Philosophy at SUNY, Stoneybrook.
[lxv] O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts. University of ChicagoPress: Chicago and London. 1980.
[lxvi] Kazanas, Nicholas. Indo-European Deities and the Rgveda. Journal of Indo-European Studies, vol. 29, nos. 3-4 (Fall & Winter 2001), pp. 257-293. Footnote #14 on page 283.
[lxvii] Doniger. Pp. 323-325.
[lxviii] Asceticism and Eroticism in the Myth of Siva, by Wendy Doniger. OxfordUniversity Press. Glossary, pp. 323–325.
[lxix] A New Religious America, By Diana L. Eck. 2001. p. 99.
[lxx] Bakker, Hans T. et al., “The Skanda Purana, Volume I.” Egbert Forsten: Groningen. 1998.
[lxxi] Details on file.
[lxxii] Ormiston, Gayle L. and Alan D. Schrift. “The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur.” SUNY Press. 1990.
[lxxv] For example, Subhash Kak has written extensively to date the Rig Veda and other Indian texts using unambiguous astronomical observations whose date of occurrence is well established by modern physics.
[lxxvi] Sufism in Islam is a small minority of Muslims who do believe in transcendence, but their notion of nonduality is as a temporary epistemology only and not an ontological reality. In Christian history, mystics have always been a small minority with neo-Vedantic worldviews.
[lxxvii] “Jung and Eastern Thought”, by Harold Coward. StateUniversity of New York Press. 1985.
[lxxviii] Joseph Campbell’s, “Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks,” (in six volumes), shows that the participants were like a who’s who of Western thinkers. This prolonged conference series was a major mechanism for the dissemination of Indic thought into the Western mainstream, Jung being the presiding deity. Campbell did his own U-Turn from India when he visited India in 1954, and saw squalor and misery, leading him to write his book, “Baksheesh and Brahman.”
[lxxx] Wendy Doniger, “When a lingam,….” p.279, 288.
[lxxxi] See Sil’s posts of May 10th 1998 and March 30th 2001 at:http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/s_rv/s_rv_sil_kali_frameset.htm
[lxxxii] Edward Said, “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors,” Critical Inquiry, V15, Winter 1989, pp.217-224.
[lxxxiii] A future Act of this RISA Lila will focus on the unscholarly conduct that pervades this body of scholars.
[lxxxiv] CHAKRABARTI, Dilip. 1997. Colonial Indology – Sociopolitics of the Ancient Indian Past. Munshiram Manoharlal: New Delhi.p.1.
[lxxxv] John Keay, “India: A History” , Grove Press New York, 2000 p.425.
[lxxxvi] Private email dated August 28th 2002.
[lxxxvii] Chakravorty Spivak, Gayatri, 1991, “Neocolonialism and the secret agent of knowledge: an interview,” The Oxford Literary Review, 13:220-51.
[lxxxviii] Colonial Indology – Sociopolitics……pp.6-7.
[lxxxix] I shall give examples in a subsequent Act of the RISA Lila.
[xc] “Textuality, Sexuality, and the Future of the Past: A response to Swami Tyagananda,” by Jeffrey Kripal.Evam. p.191.
Related Links :
1. Lalita Pandit’s column: Ten Reasons Why Anyone Who Cares About Hinduism Should be Grateful to Wendy Doniger by Patrick Colm Hogan
2. The Tantric Truth of the Matter by Jeffrey Kripal
— Rajiv Malhotra