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Elevating the Sacred

The university is not an ashram; it is a location of critical and appreciative study of many religions: their texts, histories, practices, art, and politics.

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I thank Little India for the opportunity to respond to Krishnan Ramaswamy's article in the last issue on his edited collection, Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America. Much of his article in the magazine focused on my 1985 book, Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, alleging that many textual citations were inaccurate and that the book's use of psychoanalytic theory in the interpretation of Ganesha denigrated Hinduism and was part of an overall hostile presentation of Hinduism in America by scholars, colleges and universities, publishers, and the media.

Vineeta Kalbag, in her review of Invading the Sacred titled "Tresspassers Will Be Persecuted" in The Hindustan Times, noted, "It is an angry book, but one where the anger is neither focused nor fair."

Before expressing my own view of Invading the Sacred, let me address a couple of allegations in Ramaswamy's article. He claims that my citations of Puranas regarding humans and demons being "born from the divine rectum" is an error. I don't have all the texts I consulted in my book available as I write this, but let me quote at greater length one of the sources I did use, from the Linga Purana (1.70.197-200). "Thereafter he [Brahma] was desirous of creating the four groups, viz. Devas, Asuras, Pitrs and human beings. He infused himself in the wasters. Even as he did so, even as he assiduously meditated on creations, the particles of darkness grew up in excess. Then out of his buttocks were produced the Asuras. O Brahmins, the word 'asu' means vital breath. Those born of the vital breath are called Asuras." (The Linga Purana, translated by A Board of Scholars. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1973, p. 322-23).

Another allegation Ramaswamy makes is that I falsely claim that Daksha committed incest with his daughter Sati. Again, let me quote the source from the Devibhagavata Purana (7.26-27), edited by B. D. Vasu. Vyasa is telling relating the story to the Emperor Janamejaya.

"O King! Hear. I am describing to you the ancient history of the burning of Sati. Once on a time, the famous Risi Durvasa went to the bank of the river Jambu and saw the Devi there. There he remained with his senses controlled and began to repeat silently the root Mantra of Maya. Then the Goddess of the Immortals, the Bhagavati was pleased and gave the Muni a beautiful garland as her Prasada that was on her neck, that emitted the sweet fragrance of Makaranda (juice of flowers: Jasmine). Where upon the bees were about to cluster. The Marharsi took it quickly and placed it on his head. He then hurriedly went to see the Mother to the place where Sati's Father, the Prajapati Daksa was staying and bowed down to the feet of the Sati. The Prajapati then asked him: -'"O Lord! Whose extraordinary garland is this? How have you got this enchanting garland, rare to the mortals on this earth!' The eloquent Maharsi Durvasa then spoke to him with tears of love flowing from his eyes:-'"O Prajapati! I have got this beautiful garland that has no equal, as the Prasada (favour) of the Devi.' The Prajapati asked that garland then from him. He, too, thinking that there was nothing in the three worlds that cannot be given to the devotee of the Sakti, gave the garland to the Prajapati. He took that on his head; then placed it on the nice bed that was prepared in the bedroom of the couple. Being excited by the sweet fragrant smell of that garland in the night, the Prajapati engaged in a sexual intercourse! O King! Due to that animal action, the bitter enmity arose in his mind towards Sankara and His Sati. He then began to abuse Siva. O King! For that offence, the Sati resolved to quite here body that was of Daska, to preserve the prestige of the Sanatan Dharma of devotion to Her Husband burnt Her body by the fires arising out of Yoga. The Sri Mad Devi Bhagavatam. New York: AMS Press, 1974, p. 697-98.

The context of the story makes it clear that Daksa's intercourse could only be with Sati, as she is the only female mentioned. Other versions of the stories of Daksa and Brahma's seduction of Sandhya - stories told in succession in the Shiva Purana and other collections of narratives - sets a wider context for the primal incest. The point of discussing the story is not to denigrate Hinduism, but to call attention to how the text presents the story of a "divine" violation to create the precondition for a religious and moral teaching about the dangers of erotic desire (symbolized by the garland) and how the audience of the story can learn from the mistakes of gods and heroes.

Now, I am not interested in engaging in footnote-wars over a book that was published 25 years ago. If there are errors, I regret them. They were not intentional and they were certainly not part of a larger pattern of denigrating Hinduism.

Beyond the question of "sloppy scholarship" there is the issue of my applying psychoanalytic theory to Hindu stories. What seems to have incensed the critics is not the book as a whole - for indeed, they do not engage the argument of the book as a whole - but a few fragments from a few sentences from a 13-page discussion of psychoanalytic interpretations of Ganesha's birth and beheading story, which several Indian scholars had already taken up. The other 261 pages are about Ganesha's mythologies, ritual traditions, the festival in Maharashtra, and one non-Hindu's attempt to bring an informed and appreciative interpretation of this deity to his readers.

Of course, psychoanalytic theory is controversial in some circles, but it also continues to be drawn upon by scholars across a range of disciplines from anthropology, film studies, history, philosophy, religion, and literature. Many books have been published since Freud on interpretations of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions from psychoanalytic perspectives. Some people think psychoanalysis as a theory is ludicrous and unscientific; other people think it is insightful and illuminating. Indeed, one of the most distinguished contemporary psychoanalytic writers, Sudhir Kakar, is Indian and has a large following internationally of appreciative readers.

Why psychoanalytic theory and Ganesha? When you have a story like that of Ganesha - told for a couple of millennia from ancient texts to contemporary comic books - a story of a child created by his mother with her own hands from the surface of her body, placed in the doorway to protect her from intruders, confronted by a stranger who turns out to be his father who cuts his head off and restores it with that of an elephant, it would be irresponsible for a scholar not to ask the (psychoanalytic) question: what is this story about? Could the story offer an insight into the fundamental dynamics of mother-child-father relations as they have been imagined in India, and perhaps offer new perspectives to those beyond its land of origin? Of course, the story has many other meanings that may be drawn from the deep reservoir of Vedic sacrificial tradition and rites of initiation - the upanayana - of Hindu boys. I discuss some of these angles of interpretation in the book as well.

All this fury that the critics have directed against this small portion of my book strikes me as a case of - to quote Shakespeare - "thou dost protest too much." There is something about a discussion of sexuality in relation to Ganesha that has really gotten these critics burning red hot. One psychoanalyst friend of mind quipped, "If they are that upset, you must be onto something." I can't help but think, Ganesha, with his puckish sense of humor, is finding all this quite amusing.

Ramaswamy raises the question about peer-review, implying that my book was published without adequate scholarly scrutiny. When I sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press the editor sent it out for scholarly appraisal. The anonymous reader made a number of helpful suggestions and corrections. A year later a separate panel of scholars reviewed the book when it was awarded a "best first book" prize by the American Council of Learned Societies, a national umbrella group of academic societies. My book was further reviewed in conjunction with my tenure and promotions at my university.

What is Invading the Sacred so angry about? The book articulates a frustration stemming from a few ideologically committed Hindu chauvinists failure to leverage influence in how Hinduism is taught in American colleges and universities. The book is parallel to the efforts last year in California by some Hindu organizations to re-write social science textbooks in the state school system, or efforts in India to re-write Indian history textbooks to conform to Hindu nationalist constructions of India's past.

It is simply false to claim that Hindus are excluded from the academic study of religion in American universities. More and more young Hindu American scholars are applying to our programs. This is a good thing. But, the university is not an ashram; it is a location of critical and appreciative study of many religions: their texts, histories, practices, art, and politics. In their admissions procedures American graduate schools do not admit students on the basis of their religious commitment and sentiments, but on their academic achievement and potential. It is simply false to assert that Hindu scholars are excluded from academic associations in the United States. The American Academy of Religion has a special section on the study of Hinduism, the steering committee of which has included many Hindu scholars, including Professor S.N. Balagangadhara, whose preface is included in Invading the Sacred. It is simply false to claim that there is a conspiracy to protect privileged non-Hindu scholars.

The allegation that Hindus in America are having their sacred tradition trashed in American universities is a convenient untruth to buttress an effort on the part of a number of Hindu-chauvinist organizations and leaders to create a sense of victimization. The allegation is baseless and unworthy. In my case, a few years ago, several persons claiming to speak for the Hindu community met with my dean (I urged him to meet with them) and insisted that members of their community should be involved in faculty recruitment in the teaching of Hinduism at my university. Simply on the principle of academic freedom and institutional autonomy no dean in her or his right mind would concede such authority to any group alleging hurt sentiments around any subject being taught.

Will the book generate the sort of debate and revolution in the study of Hinduism that it asserts for itself? I have my doubts. The claims at the base of the book are so bogus that no reasonable person - Hindu or non-Hindu - will find them persuasive. What and how Hinduism is taught in colleges and universities in this country is not a state secret. Many course outlines are available on the Web and course descriptions appear in college and university catalogues.

Stepping back a bit from the heat emanating from this angry book, there is something important to notice. Second generation Hindu Americans - those who were born here and have grown up here - face important questions about how they will embrace their Hindu identity. America is not India. The landscape for religious practice and affiliation is very different here. The temples that have grown up around America offer important centers for Hindu practice, and help non-Hindus get a better and less exoticized understanding of their Hindu friends and neighbors. Scholarly organizations like DANAM: The Dharma Association of North America (www.danam-web.org/) offer new venues for philosophical and theological conversation and publication.

In my own career I have been fortunate to witness and participate in an extraordinary transformation. When I began teaching courses on Hinduism in 1970, there were no Indian Americans in my classes - indeed, not until the mid-1980s. Over the years, more and more students of Hindu heritage have taken courses with me. Last year I taught a seminar of 13 students in which I was the only "white guy." It was one of my most enjoyable courses. In the 36 years I have been teaching I have never received a complaint from a Hindu student, nor has one come to my department chair or other faculty member or university official to express distress that her or his religion was being devalued, denigrated, or damaged. Indeed, quite the opposite. Students of Hindu backgrounds appreciate that their tradition is taken seriously in the curriculum, and they embrace the opportunity to study texts, rituals and arts of their own religion in the context of the university. They find the application of various theoretical approaches valuable and it gives them a deeper appreciation of the heritage they share with other Hindus.

I hope that the current inflammatory rhetoric of Invading the Sacred, and similar polemical perspectives on Web sites will burn out and more thoughtful readers will see behind the book's claims to be a "fair and balanced" analysis and see it for what it is: propaganda masking as scholarship.

We live in an age of identity politics and the politics of sentiment. Religion often connects people with deep-seated and volatile moods and motivations. Religion matters. A more worthy enterprise for scholars and practitioners to engage in is an open and generous discussion about religion, in this context Hinduism. The university struggles to be a free space for such open inquiry. Scholars struggle to be genuinely fair and balanced. Practitioners seek respect and recognition. These are each good things. Let's lower the rhetorical temperature and get busy doing some constructive and real work on understanding and representing this extraordinarily rich, diverse, and complex religious tradition.

Paul Courtright, professor of religion at Emory University, is author of Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings.

Editor's Note: Little India will analyze the competing representations of the passages in the Puranas in the essays by Krishnan Ramaswamy and Paul Courtright in a forthcoming issue of the magazine.

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (3 posted)

LVR August 24, 2010 at 4:02 AM
Before i share my view i must say Chauvinism is wrong....add to it half knowledge is just silly, I am a brahmin woman from extremely conservative family but, i think of these images as visual poetry that speaks about many things including origin of myths .
1 India had many elephants . which were domesticated to perform certain tasks
2 There were taxidermists, the skin of animals including that of elephants were used.
Some myth maker collected many stories cloned them with mysticism different communities gave their own interpretations
Elephant might have been used to store seeds, pou it through the moth gather it from the bottom, seeds were precious as rats would have got them . It is also an allegory . representing Siddi.. of Tantra , the myth maker built around it a story, as simple as that as Indians to tell stories, It is necessary to know the details of the rituals attitude of different communities and difference in observation of rituals .
For example maroon red silk worn by the head of the family, Ganesha has a certain colour, his belly is protected by a snake with hood up..
The myth maker knew a lot about elephant behavior. their sensitivity, sexual habits .
This Ganesha is enlightened ... ..the human head can make errors in thinking but animals are different ..
One can go on and on but think out of box psychoanalysis is interesting but that is not true ...The idols were made of clay therefore Parwathis body; Elephant represents Power... Parwathis\'s father is the mountain.
Founder, science and philosophy interface
Ashok Chowgule September 23, 2007 at 5:54 AM
Prof Courtright is correct about his description of what a university is. However, in the manner in which he has conducted himself on the points raised by the Hindus on his book on Shri Ganesh, he has patently not fulfilled his dharma to society.
Raj September 17, 2007 at 11:16 AM
I have some questions that I hope Mr. Courtright will be able to answer with honesty:
You say \"If there are errors, I regret them.\" Can you go a step further and advice universities to take this book off their curriculum or their recommended reading lists? I think that would be fair because students shouldn\'t get exposed to any \"possible\" errors. Just regretting? I find that insufficient.
You have psychoanalyzed Ganesha\'s \"insatiable appetite for sweets\" (quote from your book). Honestly, what goes on in the scholarly mind of yours when you watch your grand/children enjoying sweets like lets say a nice Georgia peach cobbler, or how about ice cream on a cone? Get the picture? I hope you recollect reading this when you are enjoying during this holiday season.
FYI in our mythology sweets \"represent\" the source of wisdom/knowledge. That\'s the metaphor. Freud can\'t help you there.
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Life | Religion | Magazine | September 2007

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