OutlookIndia Article-Aditi Banerjee
ARTICLES ON THE BOOK
WEB June 29th,2007
Invading The Sacred
The story of why I became involved with co-editing a book that analyzes the representation of Hinduism in American academia and the ensuing and ongoing politics when such representations are challenged both by the Indian diaspora as well as by academicians
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As I write this, I am surrounded by bookshelves full of English
translations of the Puranas and the Dharma Shastras. In my puja room are texts of stotras and pujas that I am eager to learn but have not yet touched. A few blocks away, at the local Hindu Center, a Bhagavat Katha is taking place. Similarly, for the past several months, as I became involved in co-editing the book, Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America, papers I had planned to write–on Hindu models of feminism and narratives of my recent pilgrimages in India–went unwritten.
Three Vignettes–Personal Experiences of Hinduphobia
When I was in high school, my American History teacher, for no
discernible reason, read to the class a newspaper clipping about an airplane that had accidentally landed in a remote Indian coastal village. The article described how the villagers rushed to garland the plane and pilot. The students (and my teacher) uproariously laughed at the apparent ignorance of these villagers who mistook an ordinary airplane and pilot for gods. At that age, I did not have the words or the wherewithal to explain to them that Hindus honor anything and anyone that enters their home for the first time. It is customary for Hindus to garland honoured guests, for example, or to place a dot of vermilion powder on new purchases. This does not mean we regard these objects or persons necessarily as God; rather, such gestures express our gratitude and respect for them as well as for the Divine who has brought them to us.
In college, I was exposed to Jeffrey Kripal’s “theory” of Sri Ramakrishna as a homosexual who had homoerotic feelings about (and possibly abused) Swami Vivekananda. It was presented to me not as speculation but as an academically established and authoritative truth. All my life, I had looked upon Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda as holy saints who had revived Hinduism during colonial rule in India. I had a picture of Sri Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi to which I daily offered aarti, and I eagerly read Swami Vivekananda’s complete works–one of the few compilations on Hinduism widely available in English that is written from a Hindu perspective. They had been my portal to Hinduism, but I felt shaken by these academic allegations. Instinctively, I knew such claims were baseless, and yet, these claims were made and vouched for by bona fide professors with Ivy League credentials, so they could not be completely wrong.
Could they? Shortly before I began practicing law, my guru advised me to begin wearing a bindi every day–not the stick-on kind but actual kumkum mixed with water. I was pleased to adopt this practice, as the bindi is a mark of auspiciousness and acts as a protective shield for the spiritual center of the body, the third eye (ajna chakra). While some family members and friends warned me that others, especially my colleagues, may frown upon wearing such a mark, I had experienced and believed in the open-minded acceptance of my American peers. However, I then came across Prof. David Gordon White’s book, Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex in its South Asian Context, in which he remarks that the bindi a Hindu woman wears represents a drop of menstrual blood.
I grew apprehensive about wearing the bindi to work–would others mistakenly see it as some primitive, (literally) bloodthirsty rite? Still, I have followed my guru’s instruction and wear the bindi every day, and I have never regretted it. I do wonder sometimes, though, when catching the surreptitious curious stares of others, what exactly they think when they see the red oval between my eyebrows, and whether that perception has been shaped by the speculation of ‘renowned’ scholars such as White.
Because I have faced this Hinduphobia, which often shows itself in the subtlest of ways, because I have seen my friends and peers suffer from similar experiences, and because we have never had the voice or the ammunition with which to fire back–with which to say that this is wrong, not because it is offensive or politically incorrect, but because it is baseless and untruthful–because of all this, I could not say ‘no’ when the opportunity arose to become involved with this book. For, what starts in American universities does not remain there–it spreads globally, percolates through to mainstream culture, to primary and secondary schools, and to the way ordinary citizens interact with and react to each other.
This Hinduphobia acts as a poison; with its spread, it is no longer possible to undertake the projects I really wanted to pursue, those listed at the beginning of this essay. When Hinduism has been projected to represent only the grotesque and sexualised in academia, no serious study of our Dharma Shastras within the academic system is easy; when our modern acharyas and gurus are demonised, an entire generation of budding scholars is too embarrassed to independently engage with their works; and when our most cherished deities and practices are exoticised or sensationalised, we are tempted to abandon those traditions and forms of worship that make us Hindu.
The scholarship at issue here is a pattern of Freudian psychoanalyses that sensationalise,
eroticise, exoticise and distort the meanings of sacred Hindu figures, deities, and traditions. Invading the Sacred analyses several case studies of such Freudian interpretations. Here are some illustrative examples:
Prof. Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Professor of History and Religion, University of Chicago; Past President of American Academy of Religion and Association for Asian Studies; award-winning author of numerous books on Hinduism:
“Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.” 
“The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think … Throughout the Mahabharata … Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war … The Gita is a dishonest book; it justifies war.” 
Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. [From Kali’s Child, which won the Best Book Award from the American Academy of Religion and was listed by Encyclopedia Britannica as its top choice for learning about Sri Ramakrishna:]
Claims that the mystical experiences of saints like Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda were the result of sexual abuse and sexual confusion;
“These homoerotic energies, in other words, not only shaped the symbolism of Ramakrishna’s mysticism; they were his mysticism. Let me be very clear: without the conflicted energies of the saint’s homosexual desires, there would have been no Kali’s sword, no unconscious Handmaid, no conflict between the Mother and the Lover, no Child, no Radha, no living lingam, no naked Paramahamsa boys, no Jesus state, no lovebody, no ecstatically extended feet, no closing and opening doors, no symbolic visions, no bhava, and no samadhi. In effect there would have been no ‘Ramakrishna.'”
Prof. Paul Courtright, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies and Former Chair of the Department of Religion and of Asian Studies at Emory University. [From Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, which won the History of Religions award from the American Academy of Religion:]
“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.” 
“He [Ganesa] remains celibate so as not to compete erotically with his father, a notorious womaniser, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter.” 
“Both in his behavior and iconographic form Ganesa resembles in some aspects, the figure of the eunuch… Ganesha is like a eunuch guarding the women of the harem.” 
Courtright’s work was the source for an official museum write-up about a large 11th century Ganesha carving in the Walters Art Gallery, a Baltimore museum visited by many schoolchildren: “Ganesa, is a son of the great god Siva, and many of his abilities are comic or absurd extensions of the lofty dichotomies of his father … 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.”
These works are objectionable not because they are offensive per se, but because they are based on flimsy, unsubstantiated, and often non-existent evidence. Such failings have been pointed out by fellow academics (many of whom have no association with Hinduism or India), but their challenges have gone unanswered.
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