It’s not about The Hindus
It’s not about ‘The Hindus’
-A recall of alternatives-
Disclaim er : Views expressed below are personal, based on the personal conviction that no single person embodies all Indian aspirations and no single text captures every idea of India.
It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.
– Native American Proverb, Tribe unknown (as read on Twitter)
This article is not about The Hindus : An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. In fact, this article will not include a single quote from the said book, which can be read via links here1 in full, less liable to the risks of being primed and prejudiced by mined quotes and misquotes. This article is not being written to reiterate the obvious point that alleged oversights in footnoting or proofreading, and tenuous-seeming or provocative-seeming speculations are no reason to justify the pulping of a book. That is a point that has been argued with conviction and civility by many advocates of academic freedom and civil liberties elsewhere, and it is a sobering reflection of the state of democracy in India that compels anguished advocacy for freedoms that are ostensibly guaranteed. Instead, this article is a beginning in an attempt to go beyond frequently raised (and addressed) objections to explore some infrequently considered narratives and alternatives, whose recall in the collective imagination is being stymied by aggressive thought-policing or apathetic thought-paralysis.
The questions below are an attempt to recall that recall need not only mean withdrawal of a creation, but can still mean re-introduction from retirement, and remembrance of what was valuable and forgotten in our shared and living history. Some quotes maybe valuable to consider even if (or especially because) we don’t know who exactly it is that being quoted, or even if the origin of the quotes are ‘unknown’ or ‘contested’ or ‘not confidently attributable’, like the proverb at the beginning of the post. The thought-policing now underway is done by slapping of accusation after accusation of how any narrative that departs from the sanctioned and sanctified narrative is unpatriotic, ahistorical and ‘unscientific’. Let us begin with the ‘unscientific’ accusation, and work our way to the ‘unpatriotic’ accusation, though you may read in any order, starting with the question that interests you (or irks you) the most. No answers are on offer; only alternative views.
Why do freethinkers hesitate to be adequately critical of ‘Freudian treatments’ of classics and mythology when the assumptions of Freud’s psychoanalysis do not enjoy mainstream credence in scientific circles?
Why do freethinkers hesitate to be adequately critical of ‘Freudian treatments’ of classics and mythology when the assumptions of Freud’s psychoanalysis do not enjoy mainstream credence in scientific circles?
The admittedly controversial focus on sexuality in psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud’s description of human nature is not be misconstrued as his prescription for human conduct, for the same reason that Darwin cannot be accused of promoting social Darwinism2. This is not to say that the description attempted by Freud does justice to the complexity of human nature any more than other sweeping theories of human nature3, nor is it to ignore the empiricist criticism which aspects of this description deservedly earn. However, this misconception, often willful, of reading a pernicious prescription in what may well have been a description with limitations, is one that needs to be cleared right away because it is such a misconception that also motivates much of the shrill and facile dismissals that sound like “Freud taught perversion. Those who quote Freud are not only wrong but also evil!”
The Freudian legacy is summarized thus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy4a:
“Freud’s discovery designated sexuality as the nexus between language and society, drives and the socio-symbolic order” (Kristeva 1984, 84). Freud’s break-through insight, in other words, is that sexual bonds initiate us into subjectivity and civilization…
…We must grasp what Freud means by psychical reality and its distinction from material reality. In contrast to the historical, intersubjective domain of material reality, psychical reality is the vital domain of fantasy and intra-psychic life, operating independently of objective considerations of veracity. In Freud’s view, unconscious fantasies are not lies or deceptions, but reveal a truth, not about the objective world, but about the internal life of the subject, who one is and what one wants.
Myths may be viewed as fossil records of collective fantasies expressed in the narrative proto-genres of hallucinatory realism or even the historical novel. These fantasies obviously interest scholars curious about learning ancient peoples’ view of who they were and what they wanted, from the stories they left behind. Myths from antiquity, across cultures, seem seldom if ever, shorn of references to consorts, dalliances and occasional debauchery associated with the protagonists who at some points of history may have been accorded transient or lasting deification. Speculation (so long as it is acknowledged as speculation) regarding the influences of prevailing sexual preferences or sexual mores on such narratives, need not necessarily be based on a literal belief in Freud’s assumptions, though for historical reasons is overwhelmingly blanketed under the informal term ‘Freudian’. In other words, the ‘taint’ of a Freudian association isn’t by itself an open-and-shut case to wholly dismiss a psychological treatment of myths.
The problem is, say, Freud says to a patient, “You hate your mother.” The patient says, “Wow. That makes sense.” Freud says, “I’m right.” The patient — Freud says, “You hate your mother,” and the patient says, “No, I don’t. That’s titillating. That’s disgusting.” Freud says, “Your anger shows this idea is painful to you. You have repressed it from consciousness. I am right”.
Defenders of Freud will make some claims like: adult personality traits are shaped by the course of psychosexual development; all dreams are disguised wish fulfillment; psychoanalysis is the best treatment for mental disorders. Scientists will respond, “I disagree. There’s little or no evidence supporting those claims.” And the Freudian response is, “Your rejection of my ideas shows that they are distressing to you. This is because I am right.” And this is often followed up, seriously enough. “You have deep psychological problems.”
Paul Bloom, while rejecting unfalsifiable psychoanalysis articulately as above,nevertheless hastens to cite studies bearing out a key contribution of Freud, namely the emphasis that unacknowledged influences lurk beneath what we think are reasoned positions:
People exposed to death primes become more nationalistic, more patriotic, less forgiving of other people, less liking of other races and people from other countries
Typically, we are oblivious to these factors that change our points – what we like and what we dislike – and this is, in fact, a substantial and an important part of the study of psychology, and particularly, for instance, the study of racial and sexual prejudice.
One of the big findings from social psychology, and we’ll devote almost an entire lecture to this, is that people have strong views about other races that they don’t know about and that they don’t know how to control their actions.
So, to some extent, this rounds out Freud because to some extent the particulars of Freud are — for the most part have been rejected. But the general idea of Freud’s actually been so successful both in the study of scientific psychology and in our interpretation of everyday life that, to some extent, Freud’s been a victim of his own success.
Neuroscientist V S Ramachandran4c, no enemy of Indian classics, concurs here, saying:
…The Freudian view (is) that even though you claim to be “in charge” of your life, your behavior is in fact governed by a cauldron of drives and motives of which you are largely unconscious.
Returning to the scholarly interpretation of myths, anthropologically motivated speculation of what ‘primes’ in their environments and societies may have led the ancients to tell the stories they did, remains for good reason one way of seeking better understanding of their contexts. Scholars who seek such understanding of ancient peoples do not automatically become liable to the accusation that they are out to promote misunderstandings about ancient peoples (or their supposed descendants and co-religionists today). The fact that some traditional psychoanalysts make unfalsifiable claims is by itself no reason to argue that anyone ‘searching for hidden primes’ in mythical narratives is ‘wrong because they are Freudian’. All too often, what rouses outrage among literalist fundamentalists is the very process of academic mythologists, which does not confine itself to the sublime, immaculate and supernatural origins imagined and preferred by the faithful, but attempts to trace myths to human and therefore fallible origins and subjects even scripture to historical treatment. The most common manifestation of such misplaced outrage is the trotting out of bogeymen like ‘Freudian-hence-false’ or ‘Marxist-hence-false’.
As an aside, one wishes that those who are so exercised about unscientific treatment of sexuality by mythologists, were also similarly outraged and raised at least as much hue and cry about the unscientific diagnosis by the lawyer of a spiritualist, an accused in a sexual harassment case at that, of the psycho-sexual condition of the victim in the same case5.
Who decides what is suitable for ‘family viewing’ and ‘family reading’?
Among the narratives of dalliances and occasional debauchery in epics, is the episode involving Indra and Ahalya in the Vaalmeeki Ramayana Book 1, Chapter 486a .The interested reader may visit the link with the original text, to forestall the stock objection that any details too salacious for imported (and indigenized) Victorian sensibilities are a result of later interpolation or ‘Western’ mistranslation. For someone caring to read, a ‘Western’ translation, namely Ralph Griffith’s poetic rendition of this episode is actually less explicit and duly finesses the episode6b. A plain prose version by C Rajagopalachari that can be read here6c, may be suitable as a first reading for readers wishing to get the gist of the story. When this episode is narrated to an audience comprising children, it is typically, and well-advisedly, presented in the following manner as explained in this blog6d:
In a version that is considered sanitized enough to be narrated to Indian children in US, but which yet alternates between hilarity and farce, Ahalya was cursed by Gautama because she did not obey his commands.
A theme of disobedience rather than adultery, is obviously more the result of a retelling tailored to a ‘Sunday school’ setting rather than the thematic emphasis in the original telling (if the text attributed to Vaalmeeki is to be considered canonical). The relative absence of themes of adultery, promiscuity and licentiousness in Amar Chitra Katha retellings or in televised series of myths is again the result of adaptation for ‘family viewing’ rather than a representative sampling of Indian lore, parts of which are famously unabashed and explicit about human intimacy. On what grounds can it be argued that mythologists and anthropologists should restrict themselves to the same ‘family-friendly’ selection of episodes and themes? Nobody argues against having ‘child-locks’ and labeling that ‘Adult supervision required’ for television programming and other media, but on what grounds can someone claim the right to install ‘adult-locks’ on books about mythology and throw away the keys? If ‘mature content’ is reason enough to lock away mythological excerpts, then on what grounds can the originals from which the excerpts came in the first place, be kept in the open? When a section of society arrogates to itself the right to tell everyone else, “You can’t read it for yourself to figure out. I know what is good for you (never mind I haven’t read it myself)!”, is it not an unmistakable enforcement of paternalism, rivalling the administrative overreach of the proverbial power-drunk Indra’s?
This seems a suitable time to atone in a way for what may have started as a dreary read weighed down by encyclopedia entries and lecture quotes, by offering an aesthetic interlude, courtesy of classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai’s rendition of a parable paralleling Ahalya’s ordeal6e. This interlude is for anything but comic relief, for what it really does is restore seriousness through alternative narratives that are timely rather than timeless, and force a recall of untold suffering which ‘mainstream audiences’ are in jingoistic denial of.
What safeguards can be placed against the proliferation of misinformation, inadvertent or intentional, in print or electronic media?
Two synonymous Latin words represent a better response to errors in published materials than recalls, pulping or blackouts : corrigendum and errata. Unremittingly and unrelentingly demanding corrigenda in a manner that deters repeat offenses, may be regarded as a civic duty especially in egregious instances like this exposé in Outlook by Prof. C M Naim, of an editorial malpractice that could be called ‘non-compliance with best practices’ if corporate euphemism is resorted to, but may rightly be called out as incendiary7 . Misinformation, like in the above instance, may likely be a result of malicious intent, or in other instances may simply result from inadequate homework of the sort called out in this Telegraph article8. In either case, one thing that is a non-solution is a blackout, and what an effective solution can be, in keeping with civil liberties, is a combination of counter-programming and corrigenda. A blackout is a non-solution not only in the case of unauthorized censorship-by-bullying over perceived and unproven wrongdoing, but also in the case of delayed (and convenient) ‘self-censorship’ after proven wrongdoing in a manner that removes all traces, erases evidence and leaves the episode’s lessons unseen and unlearnt. A blackout-free world may seem an inconveniently noisier world9 to some, but in such a world too, sunshine remains the best disinfectant.
What of those statements in a work of fiction or nonfiction that may be demonstrably factual and reflect realities, but nevertheless deemed provocative because they are stated in a certain way?
A twin case study of sorts is provided two movies, both starring Kamal Haasan, which provoked much outrage among political outfits claiming to represent the interests of people of faith. In the Tamil sci-fi flick Dasavathaaram(2008), some claiming to speak for the pious took voluble umbrage over a line in the film that played with two loanwords from Sanskrit, namely aalayam (‘shrine’, or more generally, ‘abode’) and shauchaalayam (‘lavatory’, literally ‘sanitation site’). The line, loosely, went : “After all, a shauchaalayam is also an aalayam”. Neither of the words is an expletive, nor do they deviate from their lexical meanings, and this at worst sounds like a juvenile pun or a poor attempt at scatological slapstick, unless considerations of piety lead one to consider any association with certain bodily functions to be polluting. Considerations of ritual purity may underlie the absence of lavatories in the precincts of many shrines in India, though many temples in the US which are defunct churches repurposed, do have indoor restrooms (which perhaps would cause much anguish to those pained by such a juxtaposition in a reel-life ‘laugh-line’).
Moving over from laugh lines, the uncut version of the spy thriller Vishwaroopam(2013) had a line that mentioned a ‘Tamil pesura jihadi’ (Tamil-speaking jihadi). The cut version dropped this line, much to the jubilation of certain organizations claiming to represent community interests10a. The jubilation seems misplaced when a news item like this TOI news report10b leads one to wonder, ‘What a more pleasant world it would have been if individuals meeting the specifications in the deleted line were as absent from real-life, as the line is now in reel-life! If only as much community organization were mustered up and visibly reported in attempts to prevent fundamentalist zealotry, as for sanitizing fictional works of even oblique references!’ Why is it that an Indian filmmaker who may see a potential movie-plot in this Caravan interview10c will have to be wary of having a phrase like ‘bomber Swami’ in the script? An argument that is often posed is “Why should stray instances, even if real, be chosen and emphasized as plot characters?” But then, if an artist must receive and comply with dictation regarding what events in one’s milieu can be admitted into the artistic imagination and treated as inspiration for fiction, then isn’t this thought-curfew, a step beyond thought-policing? There is of course no immunity from critique being sought here for any fictional work, let alone for hackneyed laugh-lines or far-fetched plot-lines or lapsing into counter-productive tropes, and all that is being reiterated is a repudiation of censorship-by-bullying.
Crying hoarse that mythologists have no business authoring volumes on the more ‘mature content’ in epics when there is plenty of ‘family-friendly’ content, is about as defensible as the demand that fiction-writers limit their character developments to anodyne formulations of an ‘average person’ and keep fringe deviants off-limits because they are ‘not representative’.
Spoiler alert: For all the hullabaloo, the movie character who was referred to in a movie dialogue as a ‘Tamil-speaking jihadi’ was not a jihadi at all in the story of the film, but a patriotic Indian Muslim soldier serving RAW who was also the protagonist. The terrorist characters in the film shown speaking broken Tamil were not Indian nationals at all in the story. Self-appointed censors seem to specialize in quote-mining (and context-missing, and mistaking fictional contexts for factual ones, or vice versa…)
Wouldn’t a better quality of discourse have resulted if there was adequate space created for religious studies in Indian academia?
When confronted with the question of why it is the mob’s writ that seems to run when it comes to artistic and academic treatments of religious themes, here is a stock argument that is presented by way of explanation: Players who can potentially argue on behalf of the (practising or observant) religious position within the academic arena playing by the rules, are not to be found in adequate numbers in public universities in India, because there isn’t enough ‘state-sponsored’ religious studies vis-a-vis the ‘officially encouraged’ secular studies. This is compared to the situation in American campuses where a religious presence is palpable, in the form of campus chaplaincies11a or research centers like Harvard Divinity School11b. Whether this represents a model worthy of emulation in Indian settings, can be examined by complementing the contemporary comparison with a more informative historical comparison.
The history of Harvard University as a case study yields a narrative of an overall retreat rather than resurgence of religion from American academia since the Enlightenment era, notwithstanding the presence of a ‘divinity school’ today. Harvard University, whose founding predates that of the United States of America, did start out as a seminary of sorts for Puritan ministers, but by the turn of the 19th century, began to proclaim and practise a non-sectarian character along which is modeled the eventual de-facto secularization of the American university. Charles Elliott, an iconic Harvard president11c, wrote in 1886 “A university cannot be built upon a sect”—unless that sect includes all the “educated portion of the nation.” There is an undeniable influence of Western monastic traditions with their manuscript-copying monks and libraries of treatises on the origins and form of a Western university, but it is also true that for at least a century, the Western university has also been a site of demonstrating Church-State separation of sorts. Doctors of theology in schools of religion function as neighbors and colleagues of secular academicians often in the same campus without any privileges to issue fatwas overriding their less devout colleagues. The University of Chicago, for instance, houses a Divinity School and is home also to Wendy Doniger. Chaplaincies for the most part have a pronounced multifaith character without undue influence on recruitment policies or syllabus decisions outside of their own departments. The lingering presence of once-religious symbology in university heraldry and traditions, may be viewed as an instance of how any body that has an evolutionary history, ‘bears the indelible stamp of its lowly origins’ to borrow a phrase from Darwin, and there’s no compelling reason to treat these features as worthy of global emulation.
So much for religion and the American university. The less conspicuous, or some would say conspicuously underplayed, presence of religion in Indian universities may have historical reasons going far beyond the colonial era. The Bhagavata Purana 1:4:25 prescribes what, if the commentator is very charitable and negligent of a history of exclusivism, sounds like an ‘alternative syllabus’ for ‘special education’ for those who do not belong to the ‘chosen’ upper-castes and significantly, those who are not men. The verse, which is quite explicit in its assumption that women and members of serving castes can go as far as the Puranas but must stop short of the Vedas, can be read in translation in a number of locations, such as here and here 12a,b(It is interesting how the second ‘translation’, traceable to ISKCON conveniently omits mention of the Vedas and Vedic embargos altogether, despite the presence of the tell-tale word Shruti often treated as synonymous with Vedic revelation or the more ambiguous Trayi, sometimes treated as signifying the three original Vedas: Rig, Sama and Yajur.)12c. The Vedic embargo as it were seems palpable to this day despite ostensible efforts to open up liturgical professions to historically excluded caste groups, where an undrawn yet uncrossed red line exists between Aagama and Nigama education where Aagama (‘that which has arrived’) refers to liturgical training for temple worship traditions that are acknowledged as human-influenced, and Nigama (‘that which does not arrive -or depart- and is hence eternal)’ education, the subject matter of Veda Pathashalas, remains off limits to those not meeting hereditary criteria. However, the ‘desegregation’ of Aagama Pathashalas is itself proving to be an uphill task, as this Outlook article reports13. When scriptural scholarship was historically subject to what euphemistically may be called ‘separate-but-equal’ arrangements, is it any wonder that such scholarship couldn’t readily migrate to a contemporary academic environment which rejects such hereditary exclusion criteria and involuntary gender-based curricular assignment?
Staying true to our intent of hearing out alternatives, what were some alternative criteria, unheeded through the ages, for eligibility for what the ancients considered the highest knowledge? Even these alternative criteria are stated in terms of terminology one would today consider obsolete or counterproductive. The Chandogya Upanishad (CU) in the episode of Satyakama identifies ‘not swerving from truth’, however inconvenient the truth may be, as the eligibility criterion in CU 4:4:514a.
He said to him: ‘No one but a true Brâhmana would thus speak out. Go and fetch fuel, friend, I shall initiate you. You have not swerved from the truth.’
The following statement attributed to the Buddha in the Dhammapada14b, a text not much more recent than the CU, describes the traits of the eligible ones in the concluding chapter. A statement goes:
Him I call indeed a Brâhmana who does not offend by body, word, or thought, and is controlled on these three points.
..and the Buddha seems to add for good measure.
A man does not become a Brâhmana by his plaited hair, by his family, or by birth; in whom there is truth and righteousness, he is blessed, he is a Brâhmana.
Unlike gatekeepers of latter-day Aagama Pathashalas who seem resolutely sure who a Brâhmana is not, the ancients seem to have believed that there are Brâhmanas and there are Brâhmanas. Moving on from ambiguations of obsolete terminology, and moving on to the colonial era, it is also a reality that there are Hindus and there are Hindus. There are ‘territorial Hindus’ like V D Savarkar who said that one’s nation is where one’s religion’s sacred sites are, and ‘hate-free Hindus’ like Narayana Guru who held that one cannot be a true Hindu if he or she hates any other religion, and famously disagreed with M K Gandhi on the question of religious conversion15. It is also inescapable that there are Indians and there are Indians. When Yoga televangelist Baba Ramdev claimed to be able to raise a pan-Indian militia16, I remember wondering aloud:
There are 624 districts in India. 20 volunteers from each district will supposedly join his militia (and the number will somehow add up to 11000). How many volunteers does this ‘warrior-saint’ expect from Lawngtlai? From Ariyalur? From Dantewada? From Pulwama?
The thoughtfulness of India to hear out seeming strangers and consider alternative narratives has kept Indians through the ages from mindlessly marching behind a single prophet or single warrior. This has been an oversize article culminating in something we knew already: that people in Lawngtlai and Ariyalur and Dantewada and Pulwama make India in no less measure than those Indians who are either ignorant or heedless of these places. I conclude with thanks to the tolerant readers who still abound in India and with a borrowed summary in under 140 characters.
Postscript: On second thoughts, I shouldn’t have been apologetic about the length of the article. After all, Bharat Ratna Dr. Amartya Sen says at the very beginning of The Argumentative Indian:
Prolixity is not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length…This is not a new habit…Indeed, the Mahabharata alone is about seven times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey put together.
To cherish Indianness is to keep talking…and keep listening.
 This is not Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus – An Alternative History, Nivedita Menon, Kafila, February 15, 2014 (Link)
 The Genius of Charles Darwin : The Fifth Ape (Part 2), presented by Richard Dawkins. Video courtesy of TheScienceFoundation on Youtube (Link)
 EvoPsych: what’s good and what’s not : Nirmukta forum thread (Link)
[4a] Zakin, Emily, “Psychoanalytic Feminism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) (Link)
 Girl has disease that draws her to men: Asaram’s lawyer, Ajay Parmar, TNN | Sep 17, 2013, 01.40AM IST (Link)
[6a] Valmiki Ramayana, Book I : Bala Kanda – The Youthful Majesties, Chapter [Sarga] 48 (Link)
[6b] RÁMÁYAN OF VÁLMÍKI.Ralph T. H. Griffith, MA, CANTO XLVIII.: INDRA AND AHALYÁ, www.sacred-texts.com (Link)
[6c] Ramayana, translated by C Rajagopalachari, Chapter 8, Ahalya, from blessingsonthenet.com (Link)
[6d] The liberal and feminist umbrage at Ahalya’s fall and redemption, Ranganath R, variedessays.blogspot.com (Link)
[6e] Mallika Sarabhai: Dance to change the world, Video from TED (Link)
 Will Justice Katju Please Take Note?How a Delhi Urdu paper used the Chinese earthquake photos of 2010 and spread hatred against Tibetans and Buddhists, C.M. Naim, Outlook, Aug 20, 2012 (Link)
 @#&**#*?N*%!* *Liar, illiterate, divisive, fraudulent, fascist and unfit to be Prime Minister
Hell hath no fury like a Nitish mocked, Sankarshan Thakur, The Telegraph, Oct 30, 2013 (Link)
 Pamela Meyer, How to Spot a Liar, Video from TED (Link)
[10a] The Littered Floor Of The Cutting Room, Debarshi Dasgupta, Outlook, Feb 18, 2013 (Link)
[10b] Jihadis wanted for 2011 bid on Advani’s life held after 10-hour operation, TNN, Oct 6, 2013 (Link)
[10c] The Swami Aseemanand Interviews, The Caravan, Feb 8, 2014 (Link)
[11a] National Association of College and University Chaplains (Link)
[11b] Harvard Divinity School (Link)
[11c] Harvard’s Secularization, Anna K Kendrick, the Harvard Crimson, March 8, 2006 (Link)
[12a] Naam Dwaar, translation of Srimad Bhagavatam 1.4.25 (Link)
[12b] Translation of Srimad Bhagavatam 1.4.25 from srimadbhavatam.org (Link)
[12c] Bhaktivedanta VedaBase: Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 1.4.25 (Link)
 Pujaris on the G.O., S Anand, Outllook, Jun 12, 2006 (Link)
[14a] The Upanishads, Part 1 (SBE01), by Max Müller, , at sacred-texts.com,
Khândogya Upanishad, IV.4 (Link)
[14b] Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 10: The Dhammapada and Sutta Nipata, by Max Müller and Max Fausböll, , at sacred-texts.com, Chapter XXVI, THE BRÂHMANA (ARHAT). (Link)
 Narayana Guru and Mahatma Gandhi, from sreenarayanaguru.in (Link)
 Baba Ramdev’s threat: Next time protesters will be armed Published On: June 8, 2011, Video from ndtv.com (Link)
- 10.06 ↩