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Invading The Sacred
Questioning the accuracy and objectivity of research on Hinduism at U.S. universities.

Krishnan Ramaswamy, Ph.D.

America’s relationship with Indian culture is a complex one. Many people embrace Indian ideas like vegetarianism, yoga, mediation, etc., but the American establishment remains wary. The classic image from history is that of Martin Luther King Jr, who admired and adopted Indian political methods, such as satyagraha, while the establishment of his time saw “passive resistance” as hypocrisy and unmanly.

How does America imagine and create images of India that are simultaneously positive and negative? As a cultural and religious minority this is an important question for Indian Americans to ponder. Our future in this country is affected by what others believe about us.

America, unlike Europe, is a deeply religious land, and many Americans see the world through a religious lens. What they think of your religion influences at least in part what they think of you. The academic study of religion in the USA is a major discipline involving over 8,000 university professors, most of whom are members of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). The study of Hinduism is an important and influential discipline within this group.

The academic study of religion informs a variety of disciplines, including International Studies, Women’s Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, History, Literature, Journalism, Education and Politics. Thus the research and writings of religion scholars go beyond the discipline’s boundaries, penetrating the mainstream media, and directly impact the American public perception of India via museum displays, films and textbooks.

For instance, the famous Walters Museum in Baltimore featured the following description of Ganesha below a large and beautiful 11th century carving: “Ganesa, is a son of the great god Siva….Ganesa’s potbelly and his childlike love for sweets mock Siva’s practice of austerities, and his limp trunk will forever be a poor match for Siva’s erect phallus.” Since such a description of Ganesha, is not found anywhere in the richly varied Hindu tradition, one has to wonder why such trivialized portrayals of Indian Divinity are acceptable in a prestigious American forum. Such public explanations are important, the writer Alex Alexander has noted, because many school tours visit the museum, and through art, kids learn about Asian culture. Scholars have traced this idiosyncratic and misleading characterization of Ganesha to an award-winning book by Prof. Paul Courtright, who claims to use Freudian psychoanalysis and “evidence” from Hindu texts to arrive at his conclusions.

Peer-Review versus Censorship

Before reacting to scholarship on India or Hinduism as being “hurtful,” “insensitive” or “biased,” one has to examine a work and see if it passes reasonable tests of scholarship. Just because one disagrees with or dislikes a particular scholarly conclusion, does not mean that the scholarship is invalid or must be “stopped.” That is dangerous and can rob us of cherished freedoms.

The only way of determining whether a particular work passes the test of scholarship is to review it in detail, taking into account the data, the evidence, the methodology and the matrix of assumptions on which its conclusions are based. This is what scholars do when they conduct a peer review, before the publication of scholarly papers and books. This is a vital quality-control step designed to prevent bias and fraud. Academic freedom, enormously vital in the human quest for understanding, is different from artistic license, as it is always balanced by a fealty to facts, ethical norms and to quoting one’s sources accurately.

So are these checks and balances working in academic studies of Hinduism? The Indian American intellectual Rajiv Malhotra believes that the process is broken. As someone who has worked closely with American academics for over ten years and has funded them to the tune of several million dollars, he should know. Because many scholars are closely inter-related and actively exclude the voices of practicing Hindus, the peer-review process has been compromised by a closed, culturally insular cartel. Thus powerful scholars, with the power to promote or harm careers, ensure that their work or the work of their students cannot be questioned by others. This has disastrous consequences for original thinking about India and Hinduism, because it limits the diversity of perspectives, silences scholars who do not conform to the academic orthodoxy and promotes shoddy scholarship.

For instance, an independent scholarly review by Vishal Agarwal and Kalavai Venkat of Courtright’s book Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings found literally page after page of major errors, unverifiable citations and even evidence of invented data. Just a couple of examples: Courtright claims, for example, that Hindu scriptures look upon human beings as the excrement of God: “Some Puranic sources maintain that demons and human beings have come from the divine rectum”(page 53). He cites passages from the Linga Purana and Bhagavata Purana (and his mentor Prof. Wendy Doniger’s papers) as his hreferences for this demeaning claim. But Agarwal and Venkat show that there is no such passage in either text; instead human beings in the Purana are born from the mind of God. Thus Courtright simply perpetuates Doniger’s unfounded allegation. Little wonder that Christian missionary groups in the United States use such works to claim that Hinduism is a “dirty, dignity destroying religion.”

Even more egregiously, Courtright claims that the Devi Bhagavata Purana records an incestuous rape by Daksha of his own daughter, the Goddess Sati: “[Daksha] made love to his daughter Sati in the manner of a mere beast. This shameful action drove her to burn her own body, that is is, commit sati…” (page 37). This is in conformity with a favorite academic theme of an allegedly deep-rooted sexual pathology and depravity in Hinduism. Again, independent peer review would have exposed this claim as being totally fabricated. There is no such passage in the Purana.

These are not minor errors. Imagine what would happen to the career and reputation of a scholar who claimed that passages in the Bible record that the Virgin Mary was raped by her own father and then was unable to produce proof of this? Even though there are numerous other stories of patriarchs committing incest in the Bible, such a “discovery” about a major figure would be examined very closely. The peer-reviewers would have checked and double-checked before allowing this defamation of Christian texts to pass into academic literature. But apparently, the peer review process was easily short-circuited in the case of an Indian religion.

Just as journalists are hauled up by their peers for manufacturing data and inventing sources, so should academics. But as our book Invading the Sacred documents, so far Courtright has never had to answer to academic watchdogs for these numerous inaccurate claims. Nor has he ever hrefuted point-by-point the scores of disturbing findings of the independent peer-review. Instead with the help of powerful colleagues in the religious studies establishment, he has succeeded in crushing dissent by claiming that his critics are “Hindu radicals” or prudish “puritans” who threaten academic freedom. A few isolated angry postings threatening Courtright by anonymous persons claiming to be Hindus on the Internet have been very effectively used to deflect attention from a serious debate on substantive issues and his factual inaccuracies. While threats can never be excused, does the academy not have a responsibility to investigate issues of ethics, quality and bias? It is important to note that Courtright’s work is far from an isolated instance of shoddy and biased scholarship.

Old wine in new bottles

Scholars surveying how Indian culture is viewed in the West (as well as by highly westernized Indians) have noticed a pattern. With some variations, these portrayals have had, in a relatively unchanging way, the following features familiar to many of us from much of international media and colonial and missionary literature: Indian culture is defined by a series of abuses, such as caste, sati, dowry murders, violence, religious conflict, instability, immorality, grotesque deities and so forth. The problems in India are not seen as historical and economic in origin, but as essences of the traditions, cultures and civilization of India, making it a “chaotic and even desperate country.” In other words, India’s problems are in its DNA. Indian culture’s own ongoing responses and solutions to these problems are rarely taken seriously, even though Indian history is filled with self-correcting hreform movements from within and this process is actively at work today. In its most insidious form, this view implies that unless Indians are rescued from their culture by external intervention, they are doomed. What is startling is that these ideas, which formed the keystone of moral rationalizations offered by the British for colonialism and exploitation, continue to enjoy wide academic respectability in the West today. What has changed over time, as the noted anthropologist Balagangadhara of the University of Ghent has noted, “is the intellectual jargon that clothes these ‘analyses.'”

Thus, while psychoanalysis has become passé and suspect in most disciplines, Dr. Alan Roland, an American scholar and noted psychologist who has studied Indian culture, finds that it is used willy-nilly in the interpretation of Indian texts, myths and symbols. Cultural differences are ignored and bizarre interpretations based on western cultural chauvinism are imposed on Indian themes. Prof. Kapila Vatsyayan, doyen of India Studies, also finds it troubling that “some academics in some departments have chosen to undertake such studies with a single-minded pursuit of reading myth and symbol at particular level, i.e. sexual.”

This happens because all the richness and complexity of Hinduism is filtered “through a single perspective of a Freudian psycho-analytical approach applied to the exclusion of the others.” Vatsyayan is dismayed by the narrowing of the American mind with respect to Hinduism based on this excessive reliance on a questionable methodology. An additional problem is that even leading American scholars are often poorly trained in Indian languages and cultural nuances, but this does not stop them from writing authoritatively about the “evils” of Indian culture.

Certain Hinduphobic evangelical groups feed off this shoddy research environment and use this “evidence” to teach American churchgoers about the dangers of Hinduism. Prof. Jeffery Long, chairman of the department of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, has voiced concerns about the consequences of such misinformation: “How many children will grow up believing Hinduism is a ‘filthy’ religion, or that Hindus worship the devil? When they grow up, how will such children treat their Hindu co-workers and neighbors? Will they give them the respect due to a fellow citizen and human being?”

The American academy needs a serious debate on the shoddy and questionable scholarship of so-called eminent Hindu scholars, which for too long has been blocked by insular academic cartels.

This article is adapted from Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America, edited by Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee, Rupa & Co, 2007.

Shoddy Research Leads to Bias

While at the level of University research, factual errors, fabricated sourcing and theoretical biases need to be identified and combated by academe, the problem is slightly different in schools and undergraduate textbooks. Since these textbooks tend to be overviews, not in depth studies, the core issue is what gets emphasized and what gets left out.

Infinity Foundation’s Rajiv Malhotra argues that this bias, which he calls Hinduphobia, is widespread in school and college textbooks. Thus, a popular and basic undergraduate textbook, Awakening: An Introduction to the History of Eastern Thought, tells students that Shiva temples are strange places, whose primary meaning is sexual. “Linga/yoni veneration was not the whole of it… Young women, known as devadasis, were commonly connected with Shiva temples… In a degraded form the devadasi became nothing more than temple prostitutes.” Then the book casually informs students that some Shiva temples were “notorious [for] ritual rape and murder”.

The imagery of these “strange and terrible things” gets filtered through the students’ Eurocentric lenses, and consciously or unconsciously, remains a part of the students’ life-long mythic view of Indic cultures.

At the introductory stage of an American student’s learning, depictions and stories about Hinduism should be carefully put into proper context. For instance, discussions of Shiva/Shakti can explore symbolic ideals, such as the transcendent meeting of the male and the female. It is more accurate for students to understand and remember Shiva as Divinity encompassing both male and female – a primary teaching about Shiva shared across India – rather than exotic obscurities about Devadasis that are not central to the religion’s practice.

Let us reverse the situation to make the point: consider a hypothetical book titled Introduction to the History of Western Thought that presented a similar discourse about pathologies inherent in Christianity in a non-Christian country like India or Pakistan? The hypothetical textbook would certainly hrefrain from blithely dwelling on the historically not infrequent occurrences of sex, rape and unwanted pregnancies in nunneries or the recently exposed epidemic of pedophilia among Catholic priests and evangelical ministers.

Devadasis, who are married to God, and nuns who are married to Christ are interesting analogs of each other. Of course, one was expected to be cultured, vivacious, non-celibate and altogether a local superstar, while the other was often hidden away, self-denying, theoretically celibate and withdrawn. But our hypothetical textbook would hardly include statements. such as, “Being the bride of Christ and crucifix-veneration was not the whole of it. In a degraded form, some nuns were little more than church prostitutes, available to the powerful among the priesthood as well as the laity.”

Nor would one condone a statement like, “Catholic churches are notorious for all kinds of extreme practices from rape of children to official protection for the rapists over decades.” Objectively, this could be backed by data. In the United States alone, hundreds of Christian priests have been implicated in molesting children. The victims are in the thousands and the problem stretches back at least a half century. I think we can all agree that such information has little place in an introductory work on Christianity.

Yet, in an introductory college textbook on Hinduism for American students they are nonchalantly and without credible evidence informed that Shiva temples “became notorious for all kinds of extreme practices, including ritual rape and ritual murder.” One has to wonder at the asymmetry and the Hinduphobia that allows such asymmetry. -KR