Demonizing the Hindu/Indian image in American Academia

published on July 10, 2007

By Pandita Indrani, Ph.D.



The recently published book, “Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America,” (545 pg) demonstrates how the lack of vigilance and indigenous expertise enabled a small group of western scholars to usurp and assume the Hindu authoritative voice and to use this for defaming, demonizing, distorting, eroticizing and pathologizing the Hindu/India image through Freudian psychoanalysis; and how technology like the Internet facilitated the mobilization of diasporic voices against this trend in American academia.


 


It summarizes the writings of independent scholar, Rajiv Malhotra, who first identified the Hinduphobic trend in American academia and who, for the past decade, has been mounting a challenge to this kind of scholarship. This book, richly illustrates how the media-academia axis worked to suppress critics through a variety of strategies and how the rights of an entire community can be undermined through this power equation. It also shows how the revolt led some scholars to introspect and re-evaluate academia’s role in scholarship and the scholar’s relationship with practitioners of the tradition that they study. This book is mandatory reading for all concerned about the integrity of India Studies and Religious Studies in academia, India’s image and socio-economic autonomy, multiculturalism, pluralism and diversity, and basic civil and human rights.



This book acknowledges that not all scholars in Hindu/India Studies in American academia are biased but the focus of the book is the Hinduphobic Freudian genre of scholarship practiced by a small albeit powerful group of scholars whose authoritative voices are spreading disinformation about Indic culture and civilization.



Pro-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Dr Prem Misir, sees the book as “stand[ing] tall and honorable against the ethnocentric writings on Indic thought” and “a timely and superlative response to the distorted rewritings of the history of Hindu culture and civilization.”



Dr Ramakrishna Puligandla (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Univ. of Toledo, USA) chastises the American academic left for encouraging this attack on the Hindu/Indian minority instead of coming to its defence as they traditionally do with other minorities. He calls on “all fair-minded Americans and Hindus” to end this disease in academia.



In Hinduphobic scholarship scholars, although untrained in Freudian psychoanalysis, are inappropriately using this technique along with their own personal pathologies and very fertile imagination to eroticize and pathologize Hindu/Indian culture – from the gods to spiritual leadership to practitioners to the nation that is India – as degraded, immoral, fraught with sexual pathologies, and a hindrance to universal basic human rights. These scholars lack language and translation skills for accessing and interpreting the multi-layered meanings and cultural nuances of the richly symbolic Hindu/Indian culture and their scholarship demonstrates the paramountcy of their personal ideologies over fair scholarship.



Such disinformation in the guise of scholarship is planted in academia, government circles, media and popular culture, by this powerful coterie of scholars who wield great political power within academia because of their seniority in Hindu/India Studies and the influence they wield over students. Since they rule the roost they have now arrogated unto themselves the voice of authority on Indian issues.


 



For example, Jeffrey Kripal, in his book, “Kali’s Child,” tries to demolish Hindu saints and Hindu mysticism by equating mysticism with sexual deviancy. Kripal claims that he authoritatively established that the saint, Sri Ramakrishna, had homosexual tendencies and that he had sexually abused the young Swami Vivekananda. The Encyclopedia Britannica listed this book as its top choice for learning about Sri Ramakrishna. This book also won the Best Book Award from the American Academy of Religion. Although Indian scholars attacked the book for its many mistranslations and other huge errors in scholarship, it continues to be used as an important reference work.


 



Traditionally, scholars of Hindu/India Studies do not provide their ‘native informants’ (subjects of their study) with any feedback to ensure the veracity of their conclusions. They go to India where they are treated as “devatas” (atithi devo bhava = treat the guest with high honor akin to that for God); they collect their data which can be faulty due to preconceived conclusions, language differences, ignorance of cultural nuances and the inability to interpret the multi-layered meanings in the richly symbolic Hindu culture. When they return to America their works remain far away from the gaze of their native informants, and they set themselves up as experts back scratching each other to ensure control in academia, for example, giving prizes to books and promoting each other‘s writings as mandated reading in college courses.


 



Indian Americans started “talking back” to these scholars – something that angered them since their traditionally superior posture shielded them from interactivity. Prof. Anantanand Rambachan (chairperson of the Department of Religion at St. Olaf College, Minnesota, USA, is a Hindu scholar who dialogues with global Christian groups for better understanding) sees the book as “a valuable historical resource“ and that “scholars should welcome a critical voice from the community that is the focus of their study, for a mutually enriching dialogue.“


 



A peaceful grassroots movement arose in 2002 centered around Malhotra’s profuse writings on listservs and portals like Sulekha.com that came to define and expose the American academic Hinduphobia that was threatening the global image of Hinduism and India. Malhotra came under heavy attack from the coterie of Hinduphobic scholars but bravely stood his ground, physically entering their courts at conferences and so on, and challenging them on their own turf.


 



A silent but peaceful revolt started in academia as more and voices started echoing similar concerns in hallowed halls of American academia. Several protests and petitions emerged on the Internet, which became the main communication pathway for dissent. In the process, a few brave scholars broke ranks with their colleagues to protest what they too saw as biased scholarship. The hitherto disempowered started talking back to the Hinduphobic scholars.



The latter then circled their bandwagons, firing back with a plethora of fallacious arguments, for example, ad hominem attacks (attacking the person instead of the issue); straw man (linking critics with already demonized persons and concepts like saying they are “saffron,,” “Hindutva” etc.); using fear and scare tactics and emotive appeal (petitions by Indian Americans were hijacked with violent comments which led the scholars to insinuate that their critics wanted to kill them).


 


The scholars painted themselves as innocent victims under attack from untutored savages, with their independence, freedom of speech and intellectual freedom being under similar attack; oversimplifying the issue as one of censorship and emotionalism, claiming authority (that as scholars of religion they alone have the objectivity and scientific methodologies for research in the discipline); using extended and false analogies (associating all their critics with Hindutva and violence in Indian politics); appealing to force (calling on scholars to boycott an Indian publisher); using prestigious jargon to sound like experts; using extended and spurious analogies to taint their critics; and the list goes on.In other words, these scholars were well schooled in arguing their positions and breaking down the opposition – debating skills inherent in the American education and lacking in similar educational systems in other parts of the world.


 



Among some of the other ludicrous claims that these Hinduphobic scholars make are:



Hindu mysticism is linked to sexual pathologies.  


 


 Ganesha is an incestuous son, a eunuch and homosexual; his trunk symbolizes a “limp phallus” while his broken tusk symbolizes an imagined Indian child’s castration complex; and his large pot belly and love of sweets demonstrate the Hindu male’s appetite for oral sex.



Shiva is an immoral God who is a womanizer and whose temples are seats of “ritual rape” of women, prostitution and murder.


 


The Devi is a “mother with a penis.”



Hindu rituals represent sexual acts .


 


Sacred mantras are nothing by “nonsense syllables from the inarticulate moans that the Goddess makes during intercourse . . . .”



The bindi worn on the forehead represents menstrual blood. 


 


 


The leader of the psychopathologizing and erotizing of the Hindu sacred is Prof. Wendy Doniger who boasts of heading a parampara (tradition) with several children and grandchildren. She holds powerful positions within academia, has several award winning books to her name, and has tutored many PhD students who continue to propagate her ideology within academia. Her prolific writings are hugely damaging to the Indian image. Though her translations of several Sanskrit texts into English enjoy huge popularity
in the academy, her knowledge of Sanskrit has been openly challenged by
competent experts.



A BBC link describes her thus:



“Professor Wendy Doniger is known for being rude, crude and very lewd in t he hallowed portals of Sanskrit Academics. All her special works have revolved around the subject of sex in Sanskrit texts.”



(http://www.bbc.co.uk/asianlife/tv/network_east_late/biogs/wendy_doniger.shtml)



She once said:



“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.” ( Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 19, 2000).



Supporting this approach to Hindu Studies, another western scholar, Sarah Caldwell, (whose formal conversion to Hinduism in India allowed her more ready acceptance and access into Hindu society) uses the psychoanalytical approach in her study of Goddess Kali, stripping the Goddess of indigenous cultural meaning and winning a book award in the process. Caldwell describes Goddess Kali as the “mother with a penis”, “the bloodied image of the castrating and menstruating . . . female.”


 



Cynthia Humes, another scholar, recognizes the deficiencies in both Kripal’s and Caldwell’s research, but she, too, sees sexual psychoses in the people of Kerala with them being consumed by homosexuality, sexual trauma, and abuse.



Paul Courtright, adopting the Freudian approach, concludes that Ganesha’s trunk is a limp phallus, he is a eunuch and homosexual and from the dregs of society.

Anthropologist, Stanley Kurtz, psychoanalytically claims to prove that Hindu mothers do not have an emotionally close relationship with their babies as Western mothers do.

David Gordon White, a protégé of Doniger, in his book, “Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex in its South Asian Context” seeks to strip Tantra of its spirituality, seeing it as a decadent form of South Asian sexuality, that was practiced by Brahmins in order to dupe and oppress lower caste people.


 



Students from the lowest grades to college are presented with these kinds of degraded images of the Hindu sacred and India. This demeans the self-esteem of Hindu-Americans, especially youths facing peer pressure in American classrooms that are already dominated by the Abrahamic worldview; it also problematizes human rights in India, paving the way for US intervention in the country’s domestic affairs; and by programming these false images in young American minds it disadvantages America in its foreign relations with India.



Prof. Bal Ram Singh (Director, Center for Indic Studies, Univ of Massachusetts, USA), notes that the civilizational portrayal of the over 20 million diasporic Indians has been controlled by outsiders for centuries and sees this book as making a path-breaking response to the biases and stereotypes in western scholarship.



Lord Rana (House of Lord, UK) likens Hinduphobia to hate speech that led to attacks on some minority communities. He credits the book with generating better standing across communities, and calls on leaders and thinkers in the UK to engage in debates with Hindus and other minority groups “to expose and counter Hinduphobia” on the way to creating a “truly diverse and pluralistic society.”



Nathan Katz (Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Spirituality, Florida International University, USA) sees the book as “a thoughtful, reasoned, yet passionate plea that the perspectives and sensitivities of Hindus be considered in the presentation of Hinduism in scholarship, textbooks and the media. What is remarkable is that many western academics are so resistant to it.”



The contributors to “Invading the Sacred,” do not believe in censorship. They want additional voices in the debate. They are exercising their freedom of speech to participate in correcting the disinformation of their sacred traditions and are calling for more ethical peer review in Hindu/India scholarship.


 



(Pandita Indrani has written Section 1 in “Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America,” edited by Ramaswamy, de Nicholas and Banerjee, published by Rupa Co., India, 2007. See www.invadingthesacred.com)

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