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Letters...but in all the shouting, no one’s listening.


At the end of Rajiv Malhotra’s lengthy criticism of Wendy Doniger’s studies of Hindu texts, he writes: “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.” If this means that slander is wrong and colonialism is pernicious, who could disagree? Yet, if this means, as I read him, that scholars should contort their readings of sacred texts to honor the opinions of traditionalists, I must dissent.

As I understand the university’s role, it is to refuse rights of censorship to any group, native or nonnative, elite or nonelite. This does not shield Doniger or any of us from criticism; many of Malhotra’s complaints about biases and errors in Western scholarship are worthy of sustained dialogue. However, scholars should challenge the “rights” of the group, which always means the power elites, to control what counts as valid. If Americans voted on evolution’s validity, for example, I’m afraid Darwin would lose out to Jewish-Christian creation stories. When Darwinism triumphed in the late 19th century, many Christians, like William James, realized a favorite argument for the existence of God, the argument from design, vanished. With it their most cherished beliefs also vanished.

Humanities professors should respect the lives, meanings, and values of those whom we study and whose sacred texts we read. But respecting a tradition does not mean we should grant to its leaders additional rights. Traditions are always in danger of redefinition from within and without. Doniger may be wrong some of the time, all of the time, or never (which seems unlikely). The place to assess her work is in the academy, not polemical billboards or Web pages. If there are illuminating counterarguments to her readings of Hindu texts, she’d be among those making a place for them at the table.

Volney P. Gay, AM’73, PhD’76
Nashville, Tennessee

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