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Sex, Sleaze, Sanskrit, Spin & Truth…

Hinduism has been a ‘lightning rod’ for attention by curious western scholars with a queer and perverse penchant for eroticising everything that has to do with this religion and culture.

Shumon Sengupta
Fri, Feb 28 2014

Photographs: Ridwan Adid Rupon

About Shumon

Shumon works for an international Aid and Development Agency and is currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He is an avid traveller, observer of peoples and cultures and an aesthete. He may be reached at his blog: www.world-citizen-trail.net


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I feel outraged and profoundly sad regarding Penguin India’s decision to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book – “The Hindus, an Alternate History”.

Firstly, I have read this book with a keen interest and would recommend it to anyone with a serious and honest interest in Hinduism. I would recommend Doniger’s book not necessarily as a means of knowing Hindu religion and culture in any depth or its complexity, but certainly in understanding Hinduism in its sheer diversity and interpretive richness. It is also a good means of understanding the dominant perspective this ancient religion, culture and its way of life continues to engender within a large section of Western scholars in post-colonial age.

Secondly, the withdrawal goes against freedom of expression – a freedom that we value immensely as a liberal, progressive democracy. Equally important is the fact that it goes against the very grain of Hinduism – a religion and a way of life, a culture that is as old as civilisation itself; which over millennia of its evolution has been open to dialogue and discourse, has celebrated diversity and accommodated multiple, often opposing, world views, and has already weathered repeated and very severe assaults.

Now, do I fully agree with Doniger? No, I don’t.

Before I proceed further, because I think my readers should know where I am coming from. I should let it be known that I am a Hindu by birth, in terms of its wider cultural system and worldview and the Hindu aesthetics in particular, and not in terms of the religious aspects of faith, doctrine, and organised behaviour. I hold that the culture-faith separation is eminently applicable in the case of Hinduism.

My reservations about Doniger’s book and approach:

The corpus of Doniger’s works on Hinduism is phenomenal and she has amassed a significant amount of knowledge on this religion. Given the enormity of her scholarly output and sheer influence she currently has on the study of Hinduism and its understanding in the West, a full, critical, and honest appraisal of Doniger’s works could itself be the subject of a couple of Ph.D. theses. A caveat, therefore, would be in order. Scholarly as it is, Doniger’s book is also meant for the non-scholar and I am exercising my freedom to comment on her book not as a scholar, but as a lay reader. But I do so with honesty and objectivity, as much as the latter is possible in my case.

Fault-line in Doniger’s approach:

Doniger approaches Hinduism from the perspective of gender, power, and sexuality, which is fresh and fascinating. However, for her analysis, interpretation, and conclusions, Doniger predominantly uses the now widely-discredited Freudian psychoanalytical/psycho-sexual model. The universal validity of Freud’s theories, particularly in the context of Eastern cultures, has been widely questioned and Freudian theory is long past its glory, even amongst psychologists in the west.

Often, Doniger applies Freudian frameworks, methodologies, and pathologies on selective and obscure Hindu/Sanskrit texts, invests these texts and its characters with wildly creative sexual connotations and imageries, and then spins weird, preposterous, and often hilarious theories and conclusions on Hindu religion and culture. My biggest disagreement with Doniger is that she consciously and consistently uses the lens of her own personal and cultural experiences and conditioning while researching and analysing Hinduism. To me, this is not just ethnocentric, but also colonial in its morality, not to mention that it also erodes the objectivity of her research and potentially undermines the epistemological foundations of her work.

A few serious critics have challenged Doniger and pointed out certain factual inaccuracies in her work, apart from the fact that at times she uses primary texts selectively, also subtly mis-translates and subverts the primary sources (in Sanskrit) in order to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Chair of Harvard South Asian Studies Michael E. J. Witzel has questioned some of Doniger’s Sanskrit translations.

Denial of the Hindu Experience:

While writing scholarly papers and tomes purporting to present a new/alternative interpretation of Hinduism, Doniger has largely denied the real Hindu experience. Hindus practice Hinduism in their own ways and they (ways) are as many as the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Hinduism has a strong argumentative tradition within its fold and they (Hindus) disagree all the time. It is so vast, complex, multi-dimensional, and nuanced that it’s difficult even for a serious scholar from within the Hindu faith to easily and fully unpack and comprehend this religion. Needless to say, Hinduism – its practice and, more importantly, its spirit as realised by a Hindu – is largely beyond the pale of most Western scholars, howsoever intelligent, sincere, and culturally sensitive the scholar may be.

Anyone who has even a vague sense of the underlying spirit of Hinduism would avoid interpreting it using Freud’s psychoanalytical model. What can be intensely spiritual to a Hindu may well appear as cravenly and perversely sexual and erotic to a non-Hindu. Thus, interpretations by a western scholar of Hinduism more often than not end up telling us more about the interpreter than about the interpreted. The interpreter becomes the interpreted and this is at times the case with Doniger, because she is given to arriving at sweeping, categorical and outlandish conclusions, making her predilections apparent even to a lay reader. And have no doubt – her book has its share of sex and sleaze.

When Doniger comments on Hinduism constrained by the flaws of her chosen analytical framework, she often risks becoming one among the proverbial six blind men trying to describe an elephant by touching a part of the animal’s body. And then from time to time, when the proverbial blind man consciously chooses to touch and feel the rear of the elephant, he only ends up describing the grand behemoth in terms of the smell of its excrement. The blind man speaks the truth, no doubt, and his description is vivid, but his interpretation becomes distorted and unreliable, his conclusion sordid and untrue.

We therefore need to receive Doniger’s works in their richness, but nevertheless, together with their limitations and flaws. In fact, Doniger has agreed that Indians have ample grounds to reject postcolonial domination, and that her works are only a single perspective which does not subordinate Indian self-identity.

What is sad is that Doniger and her students and admirers have summarily dismissed the genuine disquiet of Hindus as “chauvinistic Hindu right wing, sexist reaction,” conveniently politicizing and polarizing the issue further and denying the fact that there are real questions on her work. One particular scholar and admirer of Doniger has taken the patronizing high ground to assert that Doniger’s psychoanalytical approach has been a “kind of lightning rod for the censure that these scholars receive from freelance critics and 'watch-dog' organizations that claim to represent the sentiments of Hindus.” This enthusiastic admirer of Doniger is not entirely wrong, but then the admirer could have been more truthful by adding that Hinduism itself has often been a “lightning rod” for attention by curious western scholars with a queer and perverse penchant for eroticizing everything that has to do with this religion and culture.

Despite the richness and sweep of her work, despite her vast erudition, Doniger’s approach and work is at times patronising in its underlying spirit, and that it represents a continuation of an archaic colonial mental framework that equates Hinduism with a romanticised, ‘noble savage’ form of paganism; it views Hinduism predominantly in terms of caste, sex (more sexual deviance) and oppression of women, and at its worst – and more often than not – associates Hinduism with some form of moral, mental, and physical depravation in opposition to the Judeo-Christian ethics of the west.

I understand that these days, ethnic studies in the West have some foundation in Critical Race Theory, which includes a critical examination of society and culture as it interfaces with race, law, and power. So hopefully newer generation scholars will have the tools to look beyond their own racial and cultural lens and will be able to provide a more culturally-relative and nuanced view.

Is Doniger’s work still valuable and relevant?

In my view, an emphatic yes!

Doniger has consistently demonstrated an amazing ability to spin Hinduism around sexuality and the multiplicity of its traditions as few other scholars have. It is fascinating to note how she explores issues of good and evil, order and chaos, the worldly and the otherworldly, the arcane and the mundane, the dominant and the dominated, the erotic (moreso) and the non-erotic.

At the end of the day, despite my quarrels with Doniger, I admire her much as I admire Rudyard Kipling and find much of what she has written in the book interesting. Despite the flaws, she does make bold and innovative attempts to interpret, in her own ways, the heterodox traditions and hidden voices within the dominant Hindu tradition. Doniger’s narrative is rich, bold, vivid and wacky, particularly the way she picks up the hidden voices within the larger stories, invests them with her own voice, retells their stories through her own eyes, and always in her own inimitable way. Doniger opens up new ways of interpreting the myths and stories. As Devdutt Pattanaik, the famous Indian mythologist commented, “books are to provoke us, not convert us.” Doniger’s book does the former in good measure, which is great.

There is a place for different views in a democracy, however much we may disagree. The approach that Doniger and other scholars like her take is purely scholarly; it is not experiential. So naturally, their interpretations and conclusions would look very different from those who write from within the faith or tradition.

Doniger’s views are her truths, not necessarily ‘The Truth’ and we should take it at that. And I believe ‘The Truth’ lies somewhere between various truths. As my American friend Andrea Mandal, who has helped me see the issue in a wider perspective and who I have quoted in many places in this article, recently noted, Doniger’s books should never stand alone, in that respect, but be studied alongside those which come from other perspectives, including the ‘inside’ perspective.

Doniger’s history of Hindus will always be “an alternative history”, not “the mainstream history” of Hinduism. And as one observer said, “Hinduism will survive even if tomes of books are written trying to malign it”. So I don’t think anyone should worry about Doniger’s books on this account.

Link to the original blog by Sumon

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