Prof Ramesh Rao’s Review-UPI’s religion and spirituality forum
UPI’s religion and spirituality forum:
Idiosyncrasy in dissecting Hinduism
Column: Of Karma and Dharma
Ramesh N. Rao ReligionAndSpirituality.com
July 27, 2007
In the preface
It is not important or even necessary to go through the series of essays, articles, letters to the editor, readers’ comments, etc. (running to the tens of thousands of pages) about the book and the controversy it generated to get a handle on the nature of the controversy. One can easily get lost in the byways of tangential arguments and personal spats if s/he were to sift through the enormous material on the Internet about this issue and the varieties of personalities involved in it, including me. In fact, I get credit in the book as a contributor, as I have written the introduction to Dr. Alan Roland’s
The book helps the novice reader by summarizing the issue in a fairly cogent manner. It shows that the gratuitous sexualizing of the symbol and deity of Lord Ganesha (of the elephant head) – and proposing that Lord Ganesha’s trunk symbolizes a limp phallus – is an example of the far-fetched, idiosyncratic and puerile “analyses” that crowd the pages of so much of modern literary criticism, cultural studies and religious studies textbooks and journals. Rajiv Malhotra, who started the Infinity Foundation
When I quoted this statement in an essay I wrote for India Abroad, Professor Martha Nussbaum claimed in an essay in The Boston Review
Such circling of the wagons by powerful and influential academic and media voices was not unexpected and showed how uneven the field still is. Why get angry about this interpretation when we have allowed our artists to dunk a plastic icon of Jesus in urine
Supporters of Professor Courtright argue that scholarly inquiry should not be stifled and that well-structured analyses, vetted by peers, should be the sole guideline for forays into all and every territory. But as Professor Sharma lays it out clearly in his preface, how do we verify interpretations of religion, faith and belief when such interpretation is not based on facts? Such interpretations, not based on fact, are neither falsifiable historically or phenomenologically, he correctly argues. The question he therefore poses is important: “How to adjudicate differences of opinion, sometimes sharp, between the academic and faith communities, with criteria acceptable to both? The insiders, after all, cannot be excluded indefinitely.”
Professors Doniger, Courtright and others and their sympathetic supporters have not had to deal with “insiders” till now. However, with 2 million Indian-Americans, and many of them deeply educated and informed in their own faith traditions, but not belonging to or part of religion departments or who are literary critics, there had to be a confrontation sometime, and this book is all about that confrontation. What has shaken the Western academics teaching and studying Hinduism is the gift and scholarship of their Hindu-American interlocutors. A good friend of mine, Vishal Agarwal
At times, in the past, I have sounded shrill when arguing about such matters. But as many of the contributors in the book have pointed out, that shrillness and anger are also the result of an uneven playing field that has advantaged the entrenched Western academics and their powerful supporters in the media and government, who deliberately and carefully plan to and have shut out the voices of the “other” in the past, but who are less able to wield such power in the age of the Internet.
As a new and small immigrant community with a long, rich and powerful religious and cultural tradition, Hindu-Americans have begun to find their voice in their new home. That voice has been caricatured and characterized as uncivil, angry and even violent, because some of the Internet postings in response to the essays, especially by Rajiv Malhotra, are indeed uncivil and angry.
However, those who claim that they feel threatened by all this are either ignorant of the free-for-all nature of cyberspace and the angry, shrill, violent postings of a variety of issues on a variety of sites by a variety of people or are deliberately trying to malign the Hindu-American community and muzzle the voices of the most influential in that community. For all those interested in the debates about religion, religious diversity, intellectual freedom, freedom of speech and related issues, “Invading the Sacred” should be compulsory reading.
— — — Ramesh N. Rao is professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre at Longwood University, Farmville, Va. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of the institution to which he belongs. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org