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  Biases in Hinduism Studies: PART-III  
 

 

By: Abhijit Bagal
October 26, 2004

Biases in Hinduism Studies: PART-I
Biases in Hinduism Studies: PART-II

Continued....

Part 4 - More on Wendy Doniger and her club 

After the article on Microsoft Encarta by Sankrant Sanu was published, some people (including Sankrant Sanu himself) got in touch with Microsoft. As a result of their activism, sometime in late 2003, Microsoft removed the article on Hinduism in Encarta by Wendy Doniger and replaced it with an article written with an “emic” viewpoint by Professor Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, McGill University. 

Wendy Doniger, (formerly Wendy O’Flaherty) who wrote the article on Hinduism in Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, is a RISA scholar, and undoubtedly the most powerful person in academic Hinduism Studies today. She is a former President of the AAR, now teaches Religious Studies at the University of Chicago, chairs many academic and powerful bodies, has two Ph.D.s (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 (affectionately called Wendy’s children) 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. An introduction on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) website had once described 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…”
 

A newspaper article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated November 19, 2000, entitled "Big-screen caddy is Hindu hero in disguise" written by David O'Reilly, Inquirer Staff Writer, reads as follows:

 

"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.

 

Professor Doniger now claims that the Philadelphia Inquirer did not quote her properly, however, it is also important to note that the Philadelphia Inquirer has not retracted the article.

 

In November, 2003, Wendy Doniger flew across the Atlantic and gave a lecture titled “Indian Variants of the Myth of the Woman Who Pretended To be herself” in London, England. According to a participant, "She referred to the Ramayana as mythology and to Rama as a mythical figure who had no historical basis. She talked about his humiliation of Sita by subjecting her to fire and doubting her a second time. She linked the fire incident to the "terrible" custom of sati, inferring that it was Sita who started off this tradition. She talked of the traditional belief in Hindu embryology where the fetus is aware of all its previous births but at the moment of being born in this life, loses all this knowledge. "This is why Indian babies cry," she added. This was accompanied by laughter from the audience and also wry faces and grimaces were made by William Dalrymple, the so-called independent moderator. She talked about Sita (Lord Ram’s wife) and Lakshman’s (Lord Ram’s younger brother) supposed lust for each other and Rama's jealousy that Lakshman might take his place beside Sita on the marriage bed. She talked about the innumerable examples of minor gods guarding the entrance to the bedchambers of Hindu gods copulating. She went on to give a long and garbled account about Vishnu raping several females etc..."

 

Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard once claimed that Wendy Doniger's knowledge of Vedic Sanskrit is severely flawed. Subsequently, he was publicly challenged to prove his claim. Thereafter, Professor Witzel quickly published on the internet several important examples of Sanskrit mistranslations by Wendy Doniger, three of which have been listed here:

 

1.       Doniger's “rendering of even the first two paadas [of Rig Veda] is more of a paraphrase than a translation,”

 

2.       “In this hymn (of 18 stanzas) alone I have counted 43 instances which are wrong or where others would easily disagree.”

 

  1. “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?”

Dr. Nicholas Kazanas, a Greek Indologist and Sanskritist, writes how Wendy Doniger 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:

“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?”  

As a student of Wendy Doniger at the University of Chicago, Jeffrey Kripal did research on the Bengali Saint Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, for his Ph.D. dissertation. He visited the Ramakrishna Mission for information and discussions on this research. 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. In short, the dissertation indicated that Ramakrishna Paramahansa was a sexually abused homosexual and a child molester, who had also forced homosexual activities upon his disciple Swami Vivekananda.   

The Ramakrishna Mission scholars found out about Professor Kripal's scandalous conclusions only years later, after his book titled Kali's Child (based on the Ph.D. dissertation) had been published by the University of Chicago Press, and won enormous acclaim from Wendy Doniger's club. The book by Professor Kripal won him the first book award by the AAR, a job at Harvard and a prestigious academic position at Rice University. 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, none of the persons who finally signed off on his Ph.D. dissertation, or who were on the AAR Book Award Committee, or who glorified and endorsed his book, are Bengalis with a familiarity with cultural nuances that are at stake here. 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?

 

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 Professor 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 Professor Kripal's work.

Swami Tyagananda and many other Bengali scholars have had extensive discussions with Professor 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 Professor 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:

“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…”  

Professor 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:

“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.”  

Sarah Caldwell, another former student of Wendy Doniger, is also afflicted by Wendy's Child Syndrome, 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 is an excerpt 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.”

Vishal Agarwal and Kalavai Venkat, in a book review done in December 2003, of the controversial book titled “Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings” by Professor Paul Courtright of the Department of Religion, Emory University, note the following in their review:

The Foreword to Courtright's book is written by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. In her typical colloquial, superlative, ecstatic, juicy style, she praises the book of Courtright to the seventh heaven, without adding anything substantial. Except one thing: she bares the secret of the Hindu lore about the writing of the Hindu epic Mahabharata:

“…the Mahabharata tale in which the Ganesa dictates the epic to Vyasa!”

The Hindu tradition is unanimous in informing us that it was Sage Vyasa who had dictated the epic to Ganesa rather than the other way around as Doniger states. Moreover, Indological scholarship has so far informed us that the tradition itself is attested only in some interpolated later verses not included in the critically constituted text of the Mahabharata. No, this is not a slip of tongue on Doniger's part, unless it is some kind of a Freudian slip, because she actually constructs a pseudo-psychology out of her erroneous version of the tradition –

“…every book exists in toto in the mind of the elephant-headed god, and we scribes merely scramble to scribble down those bits of it that we can grasp, including the “knots,” the obstacles to full comprehension, that the god of obstacles throws in on purpose to keep us on our toes and to keep us in awe of him.”

While an informed reader may consider this as glaring ignorance on the part of Doniger, Courtright sees it differently. He writes,

“A special word of gratitude goes to Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, who not only shared her vast knowledge of the Pauranic literature and Hindu mythology and made many valuable suggestions on several drafts of this book, but also graced this undertaking with her inexhaustible enthusiasm and confidence in its value.”

Indeed, Wendy's children have a unique way of seeing things – so unique that it is not tainted by reality and objectivity. Doniger, for her part, reciprocates the lavish praise. She writes,

“This is a book that I would have loved to have written.”

The mutual admiration club completes its protocol 

In Courtright's defense, we must point out that he himself has correctly referred to the tradition in his book. Perhaps, Doniger herself did not read the book thoroughly even though she wrote the ecstatic Foreword to it. It is curious though that Courtright didn't correct his mentor's ignorance. It would be a cruel irony of sorts that he intentionally allowed his mentor to advertise her ignorance, especially when she had showered praise on him.  

To protest the depiction of Lord Ganesha in the book by Paul Courtright, Devendra Potnis, a graduate student, and the Hindu Students Council, at the Louisana State University started a cyber petition in October 2003 which garnered more than 4,000 signatures in a week. The petition was removed from the Internet, when some people started making death threats against Paul Courtright. The book was withdrawn from the Indian market on November 3, 2003 by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. The publishers also issued an apology. Among other things, the petition listed the following depictions as objectionable:

  • "Its (Ganesa's) 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." (Page 121)
  • “He [Ganesa] remains celibate so as not to compete erotically with his father [Lord Shiva], a notorious womanizer, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter.” (Page 110)

Part 5 – Views of an American School Teacher 

David Freedholm, a school teacher from New Jersey, concerned about the depiction of Hinduism in the American academic system, and the growing tension between the scholars and the Indian American Hindu Diaspora writes:  

"RISA scholars find themselves in this situation because they for too long have failed to listen carefully to the concerns of the Hindu community here in North America (and, for that matter, in India). Of course, scholars are not required to do this but it seems to me that it is both the ethical and the practical thing to do.” 

“Contrast this to the Study of Islam section of AAR. In its mission statement, the Study of Islam section recognizes the key role it has in shaping the understanding of Islam in public schools, universities, and in the public consciousness. They explicitly state that they need to contribute to the "public understanding of religion" in general and of Islam in particular. This concern that Islam be understood in ways that are balanced and fair from both the emic and the etic perspective is seen in the various projects they take on. They created a website (http://groups.colgate.edu/aarislam) in order to deflect criticism of Islam after the terrorist attack on the WTC. Many Study of Islam scholars have dedicated themselves to making Islam better understood in the West. Professor Alan Godlas has created an award-winning website ( http:// www.arches.uga.edu/~godlas/#islam) that is "intended to be of use for non-Muslim and Muslim students and teachers at all levels as well for members of the general public who wish to get a non-polemical view of Islam." On his site, Godlas provides links to a number of other efforts by Study of Islam members to make Islam better understood and to present a positive spin on Islam.” 

"It is clear that these efforts emerge because scholars of Islam in AAR, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, feel a responsibility to the community they study. Why are there no similar efforts by RISA? Where are the websites, public talks and statements, and books that try to provide a fair and balanced presentation of Hinduism and to correct misunderstandings of Hinduism in the public sphere (in the media, in schools, etc.)?” 

"Instead, RISA scholars appear more interested in the exotic and erotic aspects that they identify in Hinduism. They appear more concerned with trying to highlight social problems in India which they blithely blame on Hinduism. It is no wonder there is such a disconnect between the Hindu community and RISA scholars.” 

"Now the Diaspora Hindu community is reading their work and feeling its effect and many find little resemblance between their faith and the religion described in scholarly books. This inevitably leads to some cognitive dissonance and to dissatisfaction and hurt.”  

"Unlike with Christianity, Judaism and even Buddhism in North America, there is no more mainstream counterbalance to the more radical approaches taken by scholars to Hinduism. Christians of a more traditional or mainstream inclination have many seminaries and publishing houses to train scholars and publish books. For every scholarly work on Jesus that takes a more radical approach (and such books and articles do exist) there are several others that critique them and offer more traditional views. At AAR/SBL one can find evangelical Christian and traditional Catholic scholars rubbing elbows with more secular and radical scholars of Christianity.”  

"This is not the case with Hinduism. There is very little representation of more mainstream or traditional Hindu views in Western academia. When such views do appear they are scorned as "fundamentalist" or worse. And, even worse, these scholarly views are seen to become the authoritative interpretations of Hinduism in the West. For example, Courtright's book on Ganesha is one of a relatively few books on the subject in English available to a wide audience. Because it has received approving accolades from the RISA community, it will be taken as an authoritative perspective on Ganesha, despite the fact that its interpretation is wildly at odds with that of most Hindus. It will be cited by authors of textbooks and its views disseminated into material designed for non- scholarly audiences. This would almost certainly never happen with a Freudian analysis of Jesus because it would be just one of many scholarly and popular interpretations of Jesus available. There is no such balance in Hinduism studies."

To be continued.......

Abhijit Bagal


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Previous by:
Abhijit Bagal

Biases in Hinduism Studies: PART-II October 12, 2004

Biases in Hinduism Studies: PART-I September 12, 2004

India’s Vedic History / Holocaust Museum May 02, 2004

Spiritual Disneyland in Communist West Bengal? March 26, 2004

Nuclear Black Market in Pakistan February 29, 2004

Are Hindu Gods "aggressive" and "right-wing"? January 28, 2004


 

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