Doniger’s demons.

Almost a lifetime ago, when it looked like the BJP was going to romp home in the 2004 elections and their NRI supporters were crying themselves hoarse about the perfidy of Muslims and other minorities as well as defending the deeds of the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat, there was another little battle being fought, a battle that occupied the mind of yours truly and other Indian academic types.

That battle was about some NRI Hindus finding the behavior of certain American academics, such as Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal, insulting (perhaps heretical — if one could use that term in a Hindu religious context, but I believe that one can’t). WD, JK and other Western scholars of Hinduism have written books about the sexual life of certain Hindu gods (Ganesha, for example) and religious figures (such as Ramakrishna), sometimes using psychoanalytic techniques to analyze the unconscious impulses behind these myths as well as the human beings who believe them. At the same time, you had Indian and non-Indian academics concerned about academic freedom and letting scholars conduct their research on Hinduism and other religions as and how they chose to.

Much ink has been spilt on this topic (in Rajiv Malhotra’s many articles, for example), with Hindu activists claiming a conspiracy on the part of Christian fundamentalists and their academic assistants and academics protesting their innocence. I dont want to revisit these old debates, especially since my sympathies are evenly divided. I am definitely on the academic’s side in that one should be able to say what one wants about Jesus or Krishna without fear of attack. I mean, if someone wants to immerse a cross in piss and call it art, that’s their problem, and in an intensely competitive academic marketplace where (like anywhere else) sex sells, its no surprise that sex turns up frequently in the study of Hindu texts. In any case, Indians need to have many more frank discussions about sexuality, not because of the Donigers and Kripals but because of HIV. If we are going to be the country with largest population of HIV-positive people, we need to do something about our sexual practices don’t we? Everybody knows that abstinence ain’t gonna work.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that Western academics tend to find in Hindu texts and practices (and Buddhist as well, but less so) whatever their latest pre-modern, modern and post-modern theoretical fads predispose them towards, whether they be Freudian theory or deconstruction. Compound that with unbelievable statement’s like the one made by Edward Rothstein in the NY Times (in his article defending Wendy Doniger), where he says the Hindu’s complaints “echoes the complaints of many Western groups that have not developed traditions of critical scholarship”. Hello! What about three thousand years of Philosophy, Literature, Theology in the Indian subcontinent? Nothing like good old liberal misinformed supercilious paternalism.

Ultimately, these debates are about the validity of non-European forms of epistemology. As any good cognitive scientist will tell you (or should do so even if they dont), the way we perceive truth is through metaphors and myths, so I wouldn’t discount the misappropriation of myths. Basically, the substantive critique of modern religious studies, is that the scientific myth does not have a monopoly on truth. Academic students of religion are as much prone to scientization as they have been brought up in a modern secular society. Now if you compound this mistake with the fact that you get tenure at Chicago or wherever by writing thick tomes filled with psychological and hermeneutic analyses, and you dont get tenure if you explain the source material on its own terms, whatever that might be, then you are perpetuating the modern myth making technology, while discounting the “natives” myths as being invalid or somehow inferior. Which is why, I do think this debate is ultimately about the politics of epistemology and truth, even if it is conducted without regard for either knowledge or reality.

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