Samprajna Review- KK Das & GK Das

Book Review

A Review of Invading the Sacred:
Understanding and Misunderstanding
Hindu Tradition

by Krishna Kirti Das and Gaura Keshava Das
9 December 2008

The recent book Invading the Sacred (Ramaswamy, de Nicolas, Banerjee 2007) presents a collection of essays that highlights anti-Hindu bias in the scholarship of Western academics associated with the American Academy of Religions (AAR) and its branch known as RISA (Religions in South Asia). This book represents important developments in how both outsider scholars and insider practitioners are changing their understanding of Hinduism. For the understanding of outsiders, Hindu and non-Hindu scholars represented in this book all demand higher academic standards and fair representation of the practitioner’s perspective in the field of American Hinduism studies. For the understanding of insiders, this book presents a defense of Hinduism that

is not based on Hindutva, Indian political nationalism rooted in a conservative, parochial conception of Hinduism. Although the book focuses on the excesses of AAR and RISA scholars, the arrival of Hinduism’s new, non-Hindutva, insider defenders represents an important, new direction in how Hindus have begun to understand themselves and their religion as well as how they explain Hinduism to non-Hindus.

Invading the Sacred documents well the excesses of a number of well-known American Indologists. Here are some examples highlighted in the book:

[Ganesa] remains celibate so as not to compete erotically with his father, a notorious womanizer, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter.1

Like the eunuch, Ganesa has the power to bless and curse; that is, to place and remove obstacles. Although there seem to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesa explicitly performs oral sex, his insatiable appetite for sweets may be interpreted as an effort seems inappropriate for an otherwise ascetic disposition, a hunger having clear, erotic overtones. Ganesa’s broken tusk, his guardian’s staff, and displaced head can be interpreted as symbols of castration.2

Shiva is also the deity whose phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member.3

It should be noted that this is but a tiny sample of the racy, highly eroticized interpretations of Hinduism that can be found in modern, Western indological studies. Willfully mistranslated passages, shoddy scholarship, and anti-Hindu bias are similarly documented. A number of the scholars whose work has been criticized in this book in turn have tried to defend their questionable practices or have tried to vilify those who have objected. Sometimes, as also documented in this book, the American mainstream media has been complicit in protecting the reputations of these scholars.

In her first contributed essay, Yvette Rosser provides a concise history of the use of Freudian psychoanalysis by Western Indologists. Her essay shows that its use dates back to the early 1920s, if not earlier. However, as Rosser shows, Freudian psychoanalysis was not used to accurately understand but rather eroticize and deprecate Hindu culture and beliefs. In his own defense, Paul Courtright, author of the book Ganesa Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, stated that he had been “culturally constrained to use Freudian Psychoanalysis because it was expected of him by the Western academic establishment.”4

Rosser’s next essay, “Kripal on the Couch in Calcutta,” is a summary study of Somnath Bhattacharyya’s rebuttal to Jeffrey Kripal’s Kali’s Child. Bhattacharyya himself is emeritus professor and former head of the Psychology Department at Calcutta University. Furthermore, he has been a practicing psychoanalyst for thirty years. As Rosser pointed out, he is “(i) personally familiar with the primary sources cited in the text, (ii) a long time student of Indian religion and philosophy, (iii) a professional psychotherapist, and (iv) fluent in Bengali.”5

Bhattacharyya found many deficiencies in Kripal’s work. Kripal was found to have an inadequate grasp of Bengali, and he had virtually no background or training in Freudian psychoanalytic theory and practice. Not only did Bhattacharyya find Kripal guilty of outright misuse of Freud’s methodologies, such that it would “force Freud to sit up in his grave and take notice,”6 he often found Kripal’s interpretations to be willful distortions.

Like Bhattacharya’s analysis, many of the essays in Invading the Sacred highlight the use and misuse of Freudian psychoanalysis, and they point out that Freud’s approach is also widely discredited.

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