A recent online petition generated by a group of Hindu students at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette (U.S.A.), set in motion a succession of events that continue to galvanize the Hindu-American community to an unprecedented extent. The successful petition objected to a series of profane and slanderous interpretations of Lord Ganesha, a beloved Hindu manifestation of the Divine, which were published by Dr. Paul Courtright, Professor and Interim Chairman of the Department of Religion, Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.), in his book, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (reissued 2001, Motilal Banarasidas).
FROM THE BOOK ITSELF
Renowned scholars have rejected Freudian psychoanalytic paradigms for their inadequacy to interpret faith and mysticism. Yet Prof. Courtright used those very techniques in his obscene misinterpretation of Lord Ganesha. Some of his now infamous quotations follow:
- "Its (Ganesa's) trunk is the displaced phallus, a caricature of Siva's linga. It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid, and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purposes." (Page 121)
- "He [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." (Page 110)
- "So Ganesa takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated limp phallus-ascetic and benign- whereas Siva’s is "hard" (ur-dhvalinga), erotic and destructive." (Page 121)
- "Both in his behavior and iconographic form Ganesa resembles in some aspects, the figure of the eunuch...Ganesha is like eunuch guarding the women of the harem." (Page 111)
- "Although there seems to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesa explicitly performs oral sex; his insatiable appetite for sweets may be interpreted as an effort to satisfy a hunger that seems inappropriate in an otherwise ascetic disposition, a hunger having clear erotic overtones." (Page 111)
- "Ganesa's broken tusk, his guardian's staff, and displaced head can be interpreted as symbols of castration." (Page 111)
- "Feeding Ganesa copious quantities of modakas, satisfying his oral/erotic desires, also keeps him from becoming genitally erotic like his father." (Page 113)
- "The perpetual son desiring to remain close to his mother and having an insatiable appetite for sweets evokes associations of oral eroticism. Denied the possibility of reaching the stage of full genital masculine power by the omnipotent force of the father, the son seeks gratification in some acceptable way." (Page 113)
The chapter abounded with many more perverse metaphors; among others, the domestic life of Lords Shiva and Parvathi was analogized to a marriage replete with the most sorry of dysfunctionalities. Nowhere in Hindu scripture, nor in Hindu belief or practice, will a researcher find any of these bizarre ideas. Courtright simply made them up.
PATTERN OF PROFANITIES
This desecration—that compelled the students to action— was first exposed to a larger audience by the epochal work of Rajiv Malhotra. In an essay entitled, RISA Lila-1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome, and published on the Indian webzine Sulekha, Mr. Malhotra published his exposé of the misrepresentations and misinterpretations of Indic religious traditions that have acquired legitimacy in Western academia for a variety of reasons. It was in that essay that Mr. Malhotra adopted the role of a whistleblower of sorts, called the bluff of these sloppy academics, and surveyed the asymmetries in power, knowledge manufacturing, and distribution that have allowed a small group of self-declared Hinduism "experts" to serve as gatekeepers for interpretation of Hinduism in the West. They diminish various manifestations of God, as worshiped by Hindus, into laughable mythical caricatures; they assail the sanctity of the Bhagavad Gita as nothing more than a violent call to arms; they assault the morality of Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, two of the most prominent Hindu saints of the 19th century as pedophilic homosexuals.
Such profanities are apparently part of their hidden agenda to systematically debase the very foundations of Sanatana Dharma. Their goal appears to be for academia—and, eventually, the mainstream—to project Hindus as a people worshiping cartoonish Gods, adhering to an irrational scripture, and paying homage to despicable saints. Academic chicanery stood exposed to a large audience following RISA Lila-1.
While a section of the Hindu spiritual leadership was aware of such attacks, most Hindus were oblivious. Swami Tyagananda of the Ramakrishna Mission previously published a 103-page rebuttal to the offensive depictions by Professor Jeffrey Kripal (Rice University, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.) of Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.
It was the petition on Prof. Courtright’s book on Ganesha that awakened a slumbering Hindu consciousness in the United States. The spectacular momentum generated by the petition garnered nearly 5,000 signatures within the few days before it was closed. It inspired Motilal Banarasidas (MLBD) to issue a public apology in major Indian newspapers and cease distribution of the book.
The publisher acted not because of a constitutionally dubious governmental ban (as in the recent West Bengal ban on Taslima Nasreen’s book or on the Satanic Verses) but because of the realities of public outrage and their own legitimacy as a publisher of Hindu topics.
The rapidly changing events inaugurated a flurry of activity on a web-based discussion group of the Religions of South Asia (RISA) section of the American Academy of Religions (AAR). The fascinating window this listserv allows into the mindset—often tortured rationalizations—of a multitude of mutually proclaimed "Hindu scholars" in American academe, as well as a variety of revealing emails to Mr. Malhotra, led to his serialization of his previous essay on Sulekha and was entitled, RISA Lila-2-Limp Scholarship and Demonology.
The Cloak of Academic Freedom
While the initial ire of the RISA discussants focused upon Mr. Malhotra and a minority of scholars that dared to post dissenting views to Dr. Courtright’s book, MLBD became the focus of fury (and a coordinated boycott effort) with their decision to halt publication. The professors calling for a boycott explicitly mentioned the dollars they had spent on MLBD publications and some wrote to MLBD asking for books they had authored to not be published—clear financial extortion.
Mr. Malhotra documents these abuses in RISA Lila-2 and offers a marketing paradigm: With MLBD being the largest Indian-owned Indology publishing house, the attempt by Western academics to force MLBD to its knees parallels the methodology of the East India Company’s progressive monopolization in pre-colonial India—i.e., establishing control of distribution channels of knowledge. And while these abusive professors cry for academic freedom, they conveniently ignore their own responsibilities enshrined in the guidelines of the American Association of University Professors that professors should, "at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others."
A small minority, however, rose to MLBD’s defense, decried the boycott threat, and shedding vestiges of a neo-colonial mentality suggested that a dawning realization of the pervasive anti-Hindu bias among the Christian and Marxist scholars who study Hinduism inspired MLBD to take this very drastic measure.
In the early moments of the RISA debate, an earnest minority of scholars courageously posted opinions that compelled their fellow intellectuals to understand the dimensions of the debate beyond the clear damage to the Hindu psyche—they realized the need to begin a meta analysis of what Dr. Courtright had elicited.
Behold the audacity of Antonio de Nicolas, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at SUNY-Stony Brook (Stony Brook, New York, U.S.A), who resolutely declared, "A scholar who does not know how to present other cultures by their own criteria should not be allowed to teach those cultures. His freedom of speech is not guaranteed by his ignorance."
Ramdas Lamb, Professor of Religion at the University of Hawaii (Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A), also broke ranks with the majority of academics and assailed the Freudian psychoanalysis. Use of the technique, he argued, "seems to say far more about the writer and his focus than about the way Ganesha has been historically understood by Hindus." Demonstrating an intricate understanding of Hindu sentiments he echoed the indignation of nearly a billion Hindus when he asked, "Just because we are scholars, does that mean we can say and write whatever we wish, irrespective of its accuracy or impact?"
Another voice of anguished reason was that of Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Lancaster University (Lancaster, United Kingdom). In a wide-ranging post, Dr. Ram-Prasad called the numerous Hindu scholars that participate on the listserv to task for not weighing in with opinions on the issue. He went on to forewarn his colleagues that "confrontational explorations" with conservative Hindus is inevitable if the current inclination towards intellectual snobbery is not altered. Inequities are assured, Dr. Ram-Prasad argues, by "the vast asymmetries of access, exposure and privilege that still mark non-western efforts to have a voice in the west."
Muzzling Dissent and Demonology
Many more listserv members, however, used the discussion as a pretext for a witch-hunt and attempted character assassinations against Mr. Malhotra and the scholars that dared show sympathy to the sentiments of practicing Hindus by linking them to the Sangh Parivar—the "devil" for these academicians. In RISA Lila-2, Mr. Malhotra discusses the attempted imposition of a perverse casteism in the dialogue with the Hindu Diaspora. There have been documented attempts from within academia to cast off Mr. Malhotra and the aforementioned scholars as the new "untouchables." The sad reality that these marked scholars had to go to great lengths to categorically reject any association with perceived "demons" and disprove allegations illustrates rather well the politicization of the academy and the McCarthyesque ostracism of sympathizers of opposing ideologies. Perhaps, most disturbing was the failure of the moderator of the RISA listserv, Deepak Sarma (Lecturer of Religious Studies at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.), to prevent such outrages while censuring Dr. de Nicolas for voicing his support for Hindu sensibilities.
THE CULTURAL CONTEXT: CALL FOR VIGILANCE
Appropriation of Symbolic Capital
In addition to following the RISA debate to gain insights into the prevalent perspectives among academicians, the societal constructs that make this attack on Lord Ganesha possible must be examined. Symbols are a form of cultural capital. Competing civilizations hijack valuable symbols of their opponents to boost their own capital, and simultaneously denigrate other symbols to lower their brand value. Mr. Malhotra cautions that the appropriation of symbolic cultural capital is a precursor to cultural and physical genocide. We give the benefit of the doubt and presume there is no conscious or intentional master strategy or conspiracy, but the effect of the semi-conscious Christian myth playing out is still the same as if it were intentionally designed. Many pagan symbols such as the "Christmas" tree and "Easter" eggs were hijacked even as the pagans were physically and culturally annihilated. Native Americans have successfully sued in U.S. courts to put a stop to the appropriations and distortions of their symbols for all sorts of frivolous uses – for example, sports team names – by a culture that the Native Americans regard as their executioner.
At the AAR 2002 meeting, a major presentation consisted of a Christianized Bharat Natyam dance (featuring the story of Jesus and Mary). In parallel, other sacred symbols – such as Ganesha – that cannot be Christianized are being denigrated into oblivion. This dynamic must be examined in the context of symbols as a form of capital. What can be appropriated as positive serves to boost the portfolio of the conqueror, and what remains unavailable is trashed to turn it into a liability of the other side.
Asymmetry of Power and Relationship to Knowledge
While knowledge creates power, the converse is also true—power is used to shape what people are told to believe. By understanding this basic principle we can decode how the game is played, what the rules are, what strategies are deployed, and what roles various persons perform—even if these roles are played unconsciously as cogs in a machine.
The dominant culture (defined as the one with asymmetric power in its favor) controls the shaping of knowledge to its own benefit. The dominant culture is depicted as good, beautiful, and true in order to legitimize its power and perpetuate it. Those being dominated are depicted as inherently inferior.
Then a slice of the dominated people sells out into this mechanism for personal gain - the sepoys, brown sahibs, collaborators, and uncle toms - and these become the intermediaries between the dominant and dominated.
These intermediaries include Indian academicians, journalists and self-promoting NGO leaders. To the West they are useful as they (1) supply knowledge about India that the dominant culture can consider the official truth about India, even though these intermediaries are not genuine voices of native culture, and (2) protect the dominant culture by bearing the onus of the dirty work—much like Indian sepoys that fired the bullets against fellow Indians on behalf of the British Empire.
To the natives, these pawns are built up as larger-than-life icons to celebrate as role models. Hence, the importance given to selecting them for awards, granting them travel funds to the West and promoting their works in the media and academy. The brown sahib and sepoy prototype is a convenient cultural icon—an invaluable asset to assure continuity of the asymmetry into the future.
The Hindu American Foundation has chosen to summarize this recent controversy and highlight the elegantly presented analyses of Mr. Malhotra and the Infinity Foundation for very specific reasons: (1) this objectionable effort by Dr. Courtright typifies the work of many other academics that continually deconstruct—and ultimately debase—Hindu tenets, symbols and sacraments; (2) the perverse conclusions that such academics put forth gain legitimacy in Western society, are referenced and are widely taught due to the asymmetries in control over academia, and power over communication and distribution; (3) all Hindus must become aware of this intolerance of dissent, and appropriation of symbols that ultimately affect the narrative of Hinduism in schools, media and policy throughout the world.
The Infinity Foundation is a non-profit charitable foundation dedicated to encouraging efforts in furthering wisdom and compassion. The foundation is based in Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.A.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a non-profit 501(c)3 organization, seeks to establish an unaffiliated, cross-sampradaya (Hindu religious traditions) public voice for Hindu Americans. Currently a nascent entity, HAF will be formally launched in 2004. For inquiries, please contact HAF.