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The interpretation of gods
By Amy M. Braverman
Photography by Dan Dry

Do leading religious scholars err in their analysis of Hindu texts?

photo: Wendy Doniger in her Hyde Park home.
Wendy Doniger in her Hyde Park home.

Wendy Doniger didn’t see the egg fly past her head, but she heard it splatter against the wall behind her. Continuing a November 2003 University of London lecture on the Hindu Ramayana text, Doniger looked down, thinking perhaps she’d broken her water glass against the podium. When an audience member shouted, “It’s an egg!” she turned and saw the trickle of raw goop. The man who’d thrown the ovoid missile quickly exited the room.

During a post-talk discussion, an Indian woman took the microphone and quietly read a series of questions that went, as Doniger recalls: “From what psychoanalytic institution do you have your degree?”

“None,” she replied.

“Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?”


“Then why do you think you have the right to psychoanalyze Hindu texts?”

They were questions that Doniger, the Mircea Eliade distinguished service professor of the history of religions, had heard before. At the November 2000 American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual meeting in Nashville, her former students marked her 60th birthday by producing a Festschrift, Notes From a Mandala, filled with essays assessing the state of Indology. A panel discussed the impact that her teaching (at Chicago since 1978) and scholarship (more than 20 books written, edited, and translated) has had on religious studies. During the after-panel Q & A a man raised his hand. Doniger called on him, and he asked her the same questions the softspoken woman repeated three years later in London.

photo: The interpretation of the gods

The man was Rajiv Malhotra, an entrepreneur and activist living in New Jersey. Malhotra, who studied physics at India’s St. Stephens College and computer science at Syracuse University, now works full time at the Infinity Foundation, a nonprofit he founded in 1995 to “upgrade the quality of understanding of Indian civilization in the American media and educational system, as well as among the English language educated Indian elite.”

Malhotra remembers the Nashville exchange differently than Doniger does. As he recounts in a 2002 online essay, “Wendy’s Child Syndrome”: “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?

“[S]he replied that there was nothing new that any psychoanalyst would find about her, because she has not hidden anything. I...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...took it well, and said, ‘You got me on this one.’ I...predict[ed] 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.”

His 23,591-word (including 91 footnotes) essay, published on the Indian–community Web site, has become a pivotal treatise in a recent rift between some Western Hinduism scholars—many of whom teach or have studied at Chicago—and some conservative Hindus in India, the United States, and elsewhere. Since G. M. Carstairs’s 1958 book The Twice-Born (Hogarth Press) scholars have noted Freudian themes in old Indian texts and stories, arguing, for example, that the god Ganesha can be read as having an Oedipus complex. More recently, with the Internet’s help, the Hindu diaspora—about 2 million in the United States, according to the Hindu American Foundation—has become better organized. Some members have begun to protest that Western scholars distort their religion and perpetuate negative stereotypes. They’ve raised questions about who should teach and interpret their texts, whether it’s appropriate to apply psychoanalysis and other Western constructs to South Asian culture, whether there is one correct way to teach religion, and how Hindus are portrayed in the West.

In two years Malhotra’s essay received more than 22,000 hits and generated 445 comments (several by Malhotra himself) and two response essays. Most readers agreed with his conclusion: “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.” Other readers took their anger farther, calling for the scholars’ resignations, sending hate mail, tossing eggs, or issuing death threats. The adamant, at times violent responses parallel a political movement in India, where conservative Hindu nationalists have gained power since the early 1990s. Though Malhotra’s academic targets say he has some valid discussion points, they also argue that his rhetoric taps into the rightward trend and attempts to silence unorthodox, especially Western, views.

For instance, in “Wendy’s Child Syndrome” Malhotra condemns “the eroticisation of Hinduism by Wendy Doniger, who is un-doubtedly the most powerful person in academic Hinduism Studies today,” and “her large cult of students, who glorify her in exchange for her mentorship.” He notes that religious studies—a field that teaches about a religion without preaching its beliefs—is rare in India, making academic discussions of Hinduism a mostly Western conversation. “Under Western control,” he argues, “Hinduism studies has produced ridiculous caricatures that could easily be turned into a Bollywood movie or a TV serial.”

He cites, among others, two books for which Doniger wrote the forewords: Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (Oxford University Press, 1985), by Emory University interim religion department chair Paul B. Courtright, and Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (University of Chicago Press, 1995), by Rice University religious studies chair Jeffrey J. Kripal, PhD’93.

Malhotra also quotes Harvard South Asian studies chair Michael E. J. Witzel, who has questioned Doniger’s Sanskrit translations and her proclivity for finding sexual meanings in ancient texts. Doniger, who was named Martin Marty Center director this year and whose appointments span the Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages & Civilizations, the Committees on the Ancient Mediterranean World and Social Thought, and the College, knows that her work, including a retranslation of the Kamasutra (Oxford, 2002), can be controversial. “If people think sexuality is a shameful thing, then it’s embarrassing for them to have the texts that talk about it discussed,” she says. “A Sanskrit word can have ten different meanings. A translator must choose, based on her knowledge of the context. Choosing the sexual meaning,” she continues, “is not incorrect if that is one of the attested meanings. It’s a matter of, Did the author mean that? You can make a judgment, and another person can argue and say you chose the wrong meaning.”

After Malhotra’s essay hit the Web Doniger received a dozen negative e-mails. One person asked, “Were you raped as a child? Is that why you write such things?” At first, she says, she responded. When a critic argued, “Everything you’ve written about Hinduism is incorrect. You must have bought your degree from Harvard,” she asked to which books the protester was referring. “I would never read anything you’ve written,” came the reply. At that point, she thought, “That’s it. This is not a serious discussion,” and she stopped answering such messages and reading the online debates. After last year’s egg incident she canceled a lecture in Bombay.

Emory’s Courtright, meanwhile, faced harsher threats. His book, Ganesa, received little attention outside academia when it was first published in 1985. In it he uses several methods to interpret the story of Ganesha, the god created by his mother, the goddess Parvati, to guard the door while she bathed. When her husband, Shiva, came home to a stranger blocking the way to his wife, he beheaded Ganesha. Pavarti protested, so Shiva brought him back to life and replaced his head with that of an elephant. On page 103 of his book Courtright includes a psychoanalytic interpretation—“It would have been odd if I hadn’t done so,” he said in a Divinity School lecture this past April—noting the story’s oedipal theme of father-son confrontation and its alternative conclusion of the son being wounded rather than the father. He compares Ganesha, who is celibate in most versions, to a eunuch who stands at a harem doorway. And previous scholars, Courtright writes, have called Ganesha’s broken tusk and his trunk phallic symbols.

“I was approaching this story,” he said, “as belonging to the public domain, not just Hindus.” Some Hindus, however, didn’t see it that way. After Ganesa’s second edition in 2001 and Malhotra’s essay in 2002, the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, Hindu Student Council collected 7,000 signatures on an Internet petition asking for a public apology, a recall of the book, and a new version changing parts the group found offensive. In India, where the conservative, recently defeated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was still in power, the book was withdrawn from bookstores. Courtright received hate mail, including some threats. “You will get what you deserve from Lord Ganesha,” one read. “He should be tortured alive until he turns to ash,” went another.

This past February eight members of a local Hindu organization, the Concerned Community of Atlanta, met with Emory College dean Robert Paul, AM’66, PhD’70, and other faculty. The group wanted the school to “reiterate their feelings of insult,” classify his interpretations “as acts of racial insensitivity,” have Courtright issue an apology, remove him from teaching Hinduism courses, and “find Hindu scholars to teach Hinduism.” After the meeting Paul wrote a letter explaining that Courtright’s book was not meant “to offend or provoke but to explore hidden connections.” He noted that using psychoanalysis was “widely controversial but widely accepted as scholarly work of good faith.” The group wrote back to say they weren’t satisfied, but the conflict has faded a bit since then.

“These things have a shelf life,” Courtright says in a November interview. “It’s moved on.” Still, Malhotra and his cohorts are “building a general case that American scholars of Hinduism are anti-Hindu,” he contends. Recently on Malhotra’s radar screen, Courtright notes, is David White, AM’81, PhD’88, University of California–Santa Barbara religious studies chair. White’s book Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex in its South Asian Contexts (Chicago, 2003), Malhotra argues in a May entry, contends that the Hindu tantra tradition “was intended as South Asian decadent sexuality, without spiritual purpose, and that this decadence was the result of sociological suffering of Indian subaltern (lower castes) in classical times.” On the same Web site White’s former student Jeffrey S. Lidke counters that the writer “does not reduce the origins of tantra to anything other than the sphere of religion” and that rather than “decadent,” tantric sex in White’s account “was a primary means by which yogins and yoginis ultimately became immortal.”

Malhotra also argues that U.S. Hinduism scholars actively promote each other’s work. “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours—this seems to be the modus operandi of this cult of scholars,” he writes. To Courtright, though, the academic study of Hinduism “works like anything else”: an author submits a book to a publisher, the publisher sends the text to expert scholars for review, and “on the basis of those opinions they’ll make a decision on whether to publish it.” The idea, he says, “that we all somehow get in a room and figure out who we’re going to publish and who we’re going to screw over is ridiculous.”

photo: The interpretation of the gods

While Courtright has answered critics in lectures and essays, Rice’s Kripal has gone further, writing a new introduction to Kali’s Child, fixing translation errors, publishing several essays including a response to “Wendy’s Child Syndrome,” and setting up a Web site ( explaining his side of the story. In Kali’s Child, which won the AAR’s 1996 award for best first book in the history of religions, he analyzes an original Bengali text to glean new information about the 19th-century saint Ramakrishna, an important figure in modern Hinduism known for experiencing ecstatic states and visions and for inspiring the Ramakrishna Order. The title refers to the goddess Kali, whom Ramakrishna saw in his visions. Kripal translates one passage as saying that during his mystical experiences Ramakrishna often placed his foot “‘in the lap’ (kole)—that is, on the genitals—of a young boy disciple.” Interpreting that line and others through the lenses of both psychoanalysis and Hindu tantra, Kripal argues that the saint’s ecstasies were driven by “mystico-erotic energies that he neither fully accepted nor understood.” In fact, Kripal writes, the experiences were “profoundly, provocatively, scandalously erotic,” and Ramakrishna harbored unconscious “homoerotic” desires for “young, beautiful boys.”

Malhotra slams Kripal’s “scandalous conclusions,” his command of Bengali, and his psychological motivations. But he wasn’t the first to criticize the book. In January 1997 Calcutta’s English-language daily the Statesman published a full-page negative review, generating a flurry of even angrier letters to the editor and further media attention. “It morphed into a ban movement. The central government got involved,” and, he says, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation started a file on him.

Two Ramakrishna Order reviewers pointed out translation errors—Swami Atmajnanananda (born Stuart Elkman) in the International Journal of Hindu Studies and Swami Tyagananda in a self-published and online article. Kripal printed apologies and fixed the errors flagged in time for the 1998 second edition. Mistakes found after the new edition, he says, “are all minor and can be changed easily without changing the thesis.” Several items criticized as errors, he argues, “are issues of interpretation, not translation per se.”

In spring 2001 another ban movement germinated in India, this time escalating beyond the papers and into the upper house of Parliament, where it failed—not because Kali’s Child wasn’t offensive, according to newspaper accounts, but because “it would have given undue publicity” to the book. Then a letter-writing campaign tried to block his 2002 tenure at Rice. And though many readers liked the book—“I have received hundreds of appreciative letters, some from spiritual leaders, scholarly reviews that are extremely enthusiastic, and numerous enthusiastic responses from Hindu readers”—Kripal has “pretty much spent the last eight years responding to these critics.”

His response included another book, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago, 2001), which is “one long argument that most mystical traditions are homoerotic,” he says. There he applies “the same methods of Kali’s Child to Christian, Islamic, and Jewish mysticism, to the lives of Western scholars, and to my own life and thought, including my own experience of being psychoanalyzed.” In other words, he argues, it isn’t only in Hinduism but in many religions that Western scholars see hidden, often sexual, meanings.

ALTHOUGH ACADEMICS FREQUENTLY INTERPRET religions through a sexual lens (see, for example, Theodore W. Jennings Jr.’s The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament [Pilgrim Press, 2003]), for some Hindus such scholarship has hit a sensitive chord. Online writers complain that psychoanalysis has been discredited in psychology, and applying it implies that Hindus are “sick.” But “historians of religion are not doing therapy; they’re interpreting texts,” Kripal argues. “A model can be accurate and therapeutically unhelpful” (though for him personally, he says, psychoanalysis has been an effective therapy). “People use psychoanalysis or Foucault because it’s the most sophisticated language we have in the West to talk about the questions we have.” In Kali’s Child, he says, he doesn’t apply a strict Freudian analysis but also interprets Ramakrishna’s story through the Hindu tantric tradition. “Both are languages,” he says, “that turn to sexuality as the key to human religious experience.”

Even so, many Jewish or Christian studies scholars were born into the religion they study, giving them, as Barnard College religion professor John Stratton Hawley puts it, “some sort of perceived right to speak. That’s not the case for people like us [Doniger, Kripal, Courtright, himself] who have come to Hinduism only later in life.”

Hawley, who also has scuffled with Malhotra, acknowledges the need for more Hindus in the field. “As a secular academic discipline, religious studies scarcely exists in India,” he notes. “What theology meant in the British academy was Christian studies.” Hence India’s educational landscape is different than in the United States. Although students of Indian descent often take up history, literature, anthropology, or the sciences, “that hasn’t happened in religion. It’s going to take a generation for people who are Hindu by background to enter religious studies in large numbers.” Meanwhile, Hawley says, “newly immigrant families have encouraged sons and daughters to enter fields that seem more meaningful, more mainstream”—not to mention more lucrative. So while few Hindus have gone into religious studies, “the injustice isn’t caused by someone like me, but by the long history of what has happened. We train Hindus to enter the field alongside non-Hindus, and are very eager to do so. It takes time for the numbers to even out on the other side of the Ph.D.”

It’s a problem Malhotra also laments. In “Wendy’s Child Syndrome” he notes that “a peculiar brand of ‘secularism’ has prevented academic religious studies from entering [India’s] education system in a serious manner.” Therefore, unlike other religions, he writes in an e-mail interview, “there is a lack of Indic perspective that would...provide equivalent counter balance” to Western scholars’ theories, creating an “asymmetric discourse.” Further, he says, most of the Hinduism scholars are “either whites or Indians under the control of whites. One does not find Arabs, Chinese, blacks, Hispanics, etc., engaged in this kind of Hinduphobia racket.” He’s begun to research “whiteness studies,” which analyzes the “anthropology of white culture and uncovers their myths. ... I am researching issues such as white culture’s Biblical based homophobia, deeply ingrained guilt of sex (Garden of Eden episode) and condemnation of the body. ... I posit that many white scholars are driven into Hinduism studies by their own private voyeurism or fantasy, or an attempted escape from white culture’s restrictions. This is what I earlier called Wendy’s Child Syndrome because my sample was a few of Doniger’s students. But now the sample is much larger...”

The Indian/white, or insider/outsider, issue has been debated in both academia and the Hindu community. In September 2002 Sankrant Sanu, a former Microsoft manager and freelance writer, argued in a essay that Microsoft’s online Encarta encyclopedia article on Hinduism—written by Doniger—put forth “a distinctively negative portrayal of Hinduism,” especially when compared to the entries on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Sanu recommended that someone “emic” to the community rewrite the Hinduism entry, as had been the case for the other religions. Microsoft obliged, exchanging Doniger’s essay with one by Arvind Sharma, a McGill University professor of comparative religion.

For Sharma, author of Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction (Oxford, 2000), the debate has shades of gray. “Both the insider and the outsider see the truth,” he writes in an e-mail interview, “but genuine understanding may be said to arise at the point of their intersection. At this intersection one realizes that the Shivalinga [the icon of the god Shiva] is considered a phallic symbol by outsiders but rarely by Hindus themselves, or that the Eucharist looks like a cannibalistic ritual to outsiders but not to Christians.” He continues, “If insiders and outsiders remain insulated they develop illusions of intellectual sovereignty. Each is required to call the other’s bluff.”

photo: The interpretation of the gods

There’s a fine line, some scholars say, between legitimate Hindu concerns and the right-wing political wave that has recently hit India. Although Malhotra, for example, condemns the violence and threats, he has acknowledged in a Washington Post article that the Hindu right has appropriated his arguments. Just as he points to certain Western academics, arguing they perpetuate what he calls the “caste, cows, curry, dowry” stereotypes, in India, says Vijay Prashad, AM’90, PhD’94, a Trinity College assistant professor of international studies, “the Hindu right has taken education as an important field of political battle,” trying, for instance, to install conservative textbooks in schools.

Malhotra’s goal is to “rebrand India,” says Prashad, a self-described Marxist who studied history and anthropology, not religious studies, at Chicago, and who has debated Malhotra in online forums. But “scholars, to me, are not in the business of branding.” Malhotra and others “have created the idea that there is one Indic thought,” Prashad says, but “there are so many schools of thought within Hinduism.”

He does, however, agree with Malhotra about Western educational institutions. “The U.S. academy is totally insular,” he says. “We don’t engage the public often enough.” Religious-studies professors, he argues, should write editorials and otherwise engage the public as often as political scientists. “The oxygen in public opinion is being sucked by people like Rajiv [Malhotra]. He’s the only one pressing so hard. He uses that silence to say that people are arrogant and they don’t have any answers.”

For Doniger it’s a matter of considering multiple explanations. Both Courtright and Kripal, she says, “applied psychoanalysis in a limited way, and they found something that is worth thinking about. They said this could be one of the things that’s going on here, not the only thing.” She understands that Indians are sensitive to postcolonial threats to their culture. “For many years Europeans wrote anything they wanted and took anything they wanted from India,” she says. “Even now so much of Indian culture is influenced by American political and economic domination. And India is quite right to object to that.” The protesters, however, have transferred that concern to an intellectual level, arguing “that Western scholars have pushed out Indian views the same way Coca-Cola has pushed out Indian products.” But, she argues, “it’s a false model to juxtapose intellectual goods with economic ones. I don’t feel I diminish Indian texts by writing about or interpreting them. My books have a right to exist alongside other books.”

Though Doniger often (but not always) focuses on sexuality, the current protests derive from more than a Victorian sense of decorum, says Prashad. The issue seeps deeper, he says, stemming from the Hindu right’s “protofascist views.” Recent events demonstrate the lengths to which some nationalists have taken their protests. This past January a group looted India’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute because it was where James W. Laine, Macalester College’s humanities dean, had researched his book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford, 2003)—which suggests that the revered parents of Shivaji, a Hindu nationalist icon, may have been estranged. A month earlier another group attacked Indian historian Shrikant Bahulkar, tarring his face, because Laine had thanked him in his acknowledgements.

Though such violence hasn’t occurred in the United States, Western scholars have felt the effects of India’s new politics. In her Hyde Park home Doniger displays her Indian art collection—colorful tapestries, bronze sculptures including dozens of Ganeshas, and paintings adorn every surface. “A lot of these things you couldn’t buy in India now,” she says, noting that some pieces she bought in the 1960s have become antiques, which today India, like many countries, protects from exportation. But unlike art, ideas don’t get stopped at the border.


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