Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America
Editors: Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio De Nicholas & Aditi Banerjee
Price: Rs 595
Some weeks ago, my daughter and I found ourselves sitting next to three very expensively turned out ladies (Prada bags variety) at a beauty salon. It was hard to not overhear their conversation about the prize-worthy brother of one among them, and we did so with increasing amusement. He was apparently a very cultured gentleman, for he watched only foreign films and could speak only English. And they wished there were more like him in our backward India.
Now, what does this have to do with the book under review? Only to illustrate our attitude to much that is Indian, and all that is foreign. We hanker for the glossy West, pursue it relentlessly, and get very bristly when we suspect or perceive an absence of equal reciprocity from the ‘outsider’. Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America is just such a book. It is an angry book, but one where the anger is neither focused nor fair.
What struck me first was that most of the contributors to the book have chosen to live and work in the United States, are widely published, and have held respected positions. For example, S N Balagangadhara was recently co-chair of the Hinduism Unit of the American Academy of Religion. Sankrant Sanu’s protest about the Wendy Doniger Encarta entries on Hinduism led to their removal and replacement with a 20-page contribution on the subject by Arvind Sharma. So it
seems counter-intuitive to claim, as the book does, that there is no respect for the view of ‘insiders’.
The essay by Vishal Agarwal and Kalavai Venkat protests that “a cursory search on WorldCat and other electronic catalogs shows that approximately 300 college and school libraries in North America...” have a copy of Paul Courtright’s psychoanalytic Ganesa, Lord of Obstacles. However, a cursory search only on WorldCat shows up 86 titles by Arvind Sharma, out of which two randomly chosen titles, Feminism and World Religions and Women in World Religions, are available in 1,357 and 647 libraries respectively in just the US.
We have to acknowledge that the US is an open and unfettered place for study and inquiry; and that is why we all love to send our children to study in its universities. Interestingly, the US Senate is opening its session on July 17 with Vedic hymns. Catch our august parliamentarians doing that.
What worries me about this book is its motivation. Is it a scholarly treatise making a case for more ‘insider’ experts on Hinduism in the American academia? Is it an angry response to how the authors feel the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) Religions in South Asia (RISA) group’s Western theories have influenced India-related studies? Is it an attempt to discredit the work of individuals like Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright, Jeffrey Kripal (‘Wendy and her
children’ as coined by Rajiv Malhotra)? Is it an attempt to discredit the Western media? Or is it an angry Hindu response to Christianity and Islam? The fact also remains that when authors like Sarah Caldwell (a member of RISA
for her scholarship on Kali) are met with criticism from other ‘outsiders’ like Cynthia Humes, it is dismissed with a comment like: “But how seriously does Caldwell have to take such criticism?”
The book is very defensive where scholarship of Hinduism is concerned and perceives any counter-objections from Western scholars to the ‘insider’s’ critique of their work as ‘attacks’, but discounts as ineffective any similar objections
from an ‘outsider’ to another ‘outsider’s’ scholarship. The editorial boxes interwoven in the essays add a more hysterical note with hypothetical reasoning or one-sided editorialising. The logic behind the book’s illustrations — comic strips that are pretty damning of the ‘White non-Hindu’ — is also puzzling. These comics carry a disclaimer at the bottom that they bear no resemblance to any real person. So what is the purpose of their inclusion?
In one essay, Pandita Indrani Rampersad takes vehement objection to Stanley Kurtz’s anthropological study that claims that unlike Western women, Hindu mothers do not use nursing time as an occasion to cement an emotional union with their child. Maybe in the community that he observed, the women did not have the privacy of space or the luxury of time
to use nursing as bonding time. But so what? Doesn’t Pandita Indrani’s objection indicate that we too are judging ourselves on Western matrices? We bond with our children in a multitude of other ways.
The criticism in the book is aimed at psychoanalytic methods used to interpret some of our Hindu mythology. It would do well to remember that this is just one method of analysis of — myths! The psychoanalytic interpretation through Western eyes of Ganesa’s trunk as a phallus is not as bizarre as the authors claim, given the story of Queen Maya’s dream that a white elephant was tearing through her womb and her subsequent conviction that she was going to give birth to a boy; and indeed the Gautam Buddha was born.
The Rig Veda I.164.46 states “Ekam sat vipraha bahuda vadanti” or “truth is one, the sages give it many names”. It is a noble task to familiarise the West with the Hindu’s understanding of Hinduism. But it should be done with equanimity, and respect for the scholarship of others whose interpretation may not be the same as ours; and most certainly not by throwing eggs at them.
As you read this book, ask yourself one question — do you stand for artistic and creative freedom? If the answer is yes, then you must support academic freedom. Scholarly debate is only enriching; muzzling is dehumanising. Let us also not forget that the Rig Veda has been added to the UNESCO’s heritage list.
Vineeta Kalbag is a potter and psychologist, and has lived overseas in several countries for many years.