It’s not about The Hindus

Written by February 26, 2014 6:03 am 23 comments

It’s not about ‘The Hindus’

-A recall of alternatives-

Disclaimer : 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?

Who decides what is suitable for ‘family viewing’ and ‘family reading’?

What safeguards can be placed against the proliferation of misinformation, inadvertent or intentional, in print or electronic media?

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?

Wouldn’t a better quality of discourse have resulted if there was adequate space created for religious studies in Indian academia?

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.

How much of a ‘taint’ on credibility is a ‘Freudian’ association? Paul Bloom of Yale University4b illustrates the unfalsifiable nature of the assumptions underlying Freudian psychoanalysis thus:

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.

The painting by Ravi Varma shows Ahalya bowed in supplication, before the seated sage Vishwamitra flanked by the princes Rama and Lakshmana.

Ahalya’s redemption as depicted by Raja Ravi Varma, circa 1900s. Image via columbia.edu (Links to source)

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.

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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.

Screenshot of tweet by @egotwist that reads "Thankfully, #India's too huge and too diverse for any one ideology to take hold. That's the beauty & tragedy of this country."

Thankfully, #India’s too huge and too diverse for any one ideology to take hold. That’s the beauty & tragedy of this country.

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.

References:

[1] This is not Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus – An Alternative History, Nivedita Menon, Kafila, February 15, 2014 (Link)

[2] The Genius of Charles Darwin : The Fifth Ape (Part 2), presented by Richard Dawkins. Video courtesy of TheScienceFoundation on Youtube (Link)

[3] 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)

[4b] Introduction to Psychology with Paul Bloom, Yale University, Video courtesy of YaleCourses on Youtube (Link) Transcripts available here (Link)

[4c] Mirror Neurons and the brain in the vat [1.10.06] by V.S. Ramachandran, Edge:The Third Culture (Link)

[5] 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)

[7] 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)

[8] @#&**#*?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)

[9] 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)

[13] Pujaris on the G.O., S Anand, Outllook, Jun 12, 2006 (Link)

[14a] The Upanishads, Part 1 (SBE01), by Max Müller, [1879], 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, [1881], at sacred-texts.com, Chapter XXVI, THE BRÂHMANA (ARHAT). (Link)

[15] Narayana Guru and Mahatma Gandhi, from sreenarayanaguru.in (Link)

[16] Baba Ramdev’s threat: Next time protesters will be armed Published On: June 8, 2011, Video from ndtv.com (Link)

This post was written by:

- who has written 12 posts on Nirmukta.

Arvind Iyer is a student researcher at the University of Southern California working in the broad areas of Computational Neuroscience and biological visual processing. His interests include science popularization, continuing education, secular philanthropy and freethought blogging.

23 Comments

  • I’m not sure why you’re talking about psychoanalysis. The Hindus doesn’t contain a shred of psychoanalysis in it.

    None of the scholars accused by Hindus of using psychoanalysis actually do so significantly. Doniger herself makes light of it in
    this article about why the Siva linga has been both a sexual and a nonsexual symbol in Indian history, providing myths to support both readings.

    Paul Courtright– another controversial author– wrote a book on Ganesa and devoted 5 of some 300 pages to psychoanalysis. The psychoanalysis he uses is very queer though and incensed Hindus.

    He claims that Ganesha was given an elephant head because the trunk is similar to a flaccid penis. Since the Ganesha myth (where Ganesha is killed) reminds him of the Oedipal myth, he reasons that this is the only way that Ganesha can live with both his father and mother– by castrating himself. He further says that the offering of sweets are a simulation of oral secks.

    An Oedipal reading of the text is fine, and perhaps even interesting. But remember hermeneutics. Someone wrote this myth. Did he/she have an Oedipal conflict in mind? Probably not.
    Was this an UNCONSCIOUS decision by the author– as Freud would say? Also probably not.

    Another psychoanalyst call Alan Dundes tries to explain the caste system using psychoanalysis and says it has to do with how Indians are potty trained. It’s a terrible explanation and an insult to those who suffer from caste, the Dalits.

    From personal communication (from a Religion grad student who now teaches at a university in the American midwest), no real scholar uses psychoanalysis today.

    But it was never a problem in the first place.

    • I bring up psychoanalysis only in the context of summarizing the mixed legacy of Freud (the bathwater and the baby, if you will) : consisting of the therapeutic claims of psychoanalysis (now widely held to be pseudoscience) and the broader ‘center-staging’ of the subconscious (which continues to be influential). Hence the aside on priming in the article, with examples where the primes, even the ones evoking primal emotions, aren’t necessarily sexual.

      The chapter on the Ramayana in The Hindus does allude briefly to the Freudian idea of dreamwork . The actions of Rama in the jungle of Kishkindha are observed to have a reckless, rancorous quality which do not express themselves when Rama is in more civilized surroundings, and this is compared to how actions that may be found objectionable by waking selves may end up performed in dreams. Then again, this is only an analogy and does not even pretend to be an ‘explanation’ of any kind.

      I agree that (mis)application of psychoanalysis is not exactly a widespread plague in serious academic scholarship on religion (and hadn’t assumed it earlier either), but the inclusion of the said section in the article wasn’t occasioned by scholarly objections in the first place, but by one of the stock arguments of participants in social media hailing the recall of The Hindus.

    • Here is a hypothesis. People who come up with this kind of guesswork based on subconscious motives has a problem with their thinking. But they don’t know that because the reasons lie within their subconscious and hence take their guesswork seriously. Their writings based on this guesswork appeal to some people because they have a similar if not the same problem with their thinking. They don’t know that either because the reasons lie within their subconscious. This guesswork may not appeal to others, possibly a large majority because they don’t have similar kind of problem with their (subconscious) thinking even though they may have myriad other kinds of problems with their thinking.

      • A supercilious and insidious hidden assumption in the above comment is that any departure from the mainstream majority view is pathological, and that anyone who departs from the conventional wisdom has problems with their thinking. It has become a tactic of those who have a vested interest in the conventional wisdom and the status quo to cynically and callously impute mental illness to any challenger (of which Reference #5 in the post is an egregious instance). They are able to get away with this in a climate where supposed public intellectuals are hindering a scientifically grounded public understanding of mental health, like B M Hegde does here (and is exposed ). That is not the only instance where it is the majority that has problems with its thinking, and such problematic and pernicious thinking with regard to sexual orientation is called out here .

        • Arvind,

          “A supercilious and insidious hidden assumption ..”

          It was explicitly stated as a hypothesis, not as a statement of fact or conclusion,
          so there are no assumptions involved here, hidden or otherwise

          “any departure from the mainstream majority view is pathological, and that
          anyone who departs from the conventional wisdom has problems with their thinking.”

          But the hypothesis talks about problems of all, it doesn’t say majority have no problems

          “It has become a tactic of those who have a vested interest ..”
          “cynically and callously impute ..”
          “They are able to get away with this in a climate ..”
          “such problematic and pernicious thinking ..”

          Why can these things (vested interest, cynicism, callousness, getting away with, perniciousness) be
          attributed to the above comment, but not to the other writings based on subconscious motives?

          • I should have been clearer.

            Being part of a majority or minority, which the same person can be at different times, both come with their own distorting lenses which will mutually appear to be ‘problematic thinking’. A productive way to deal with this maybe to keep talking and keep listening and build a noisier sunlit world . A not-so-productive way of dealing with this is to dismiss all thinking as problematic and pointless and give in to the cop-out Prof. Sandel warns against here in a 5-minute segment.

            Perhaps retiring the terms ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ while referring to familiar or unfamiliar thinking of oneself or of others, and simply using the term ‘different'(to start with) might help us keep talking and keep listening. Dignifying something as normal or treating different as deficient don’t particularly foster dialogue, and the collective attempt to becoming less wrong together. Nobody is saying that anything different must be treated as right by default, and the argument only is that needn’t be treated as wrong by default before it is heard out!

            “We must embrace cognitive diversity”, says the speaker in this TED talk , and “Don’t tell me I’m normal!” pleads the speaker in this talk .

            Returning to the context of this discussion, this is also, as this Kafila post argues, about preserving narrative diversity amid the din of the custodians of normalcy shouting everything else out.

  • I’m sorry, but your section on whether or not Indian universities should cultivate religious studies is incredibly naive.

    You don’t seem to understand the distinction between the secular study of religion and theological seminaries, both of which exist here in the United States. Secular study of religion happens in Religion, History, and “Area Studies” department,
    and it is a much needed field. The humanities (and pure sciences for that matter) barely exist in India, and I believe that they ought to.

    And the lack of religious studies in India hardly has anything to do with the Bhagavata Purana. In fact, some of the first modern universities in India were about helping the British gain some amount of control and understanding over Sanskrit texts (Vidyasagara’s Sanskrit College is a prime example).

    It’s an Orientalist bias to try and exaplain away all Indian behavior using 2000 year old texts, and it’s disappointing that it is still in vogue today– especially by Indians themselves.

    • First off, the section wasn’t about whether Indian universities should cultivate religious studies, but actually an anguished commentary of the less than fecund blossoming of home-grown Indology(including scholarship on Indic faiths)in post-Independence India and the absence of any impetus-providing initiative like the Asiatic Society was in the colonial era. It is like a wondering-aloud of why it was Harvard rather than some Indian campus that became the site of the Murthy Classical Library of India . Also, there is no conflation between secular-academic and religious scholarship in the article, as should have been clear from the reference to the U Chicago Divinity School vis-a-vis Wendy Doniger.

      A diagnosis that the article attempts of the malnourishment of Indology in India, is manifold : a culture of exclusion in which classical influences are still palpable, and also a climate where the discourse is dominated by sparring revisionist camps that hinder scholarship. As for the culture of exclusion, the post brings up not just a ‘2000 year-old text'(which by the way would be an antiquity-inflation of the Bhagavata Purana dated between 500-1000 CE /post-Gupta era)but a news item as recent as 2006 (Ref #13 ) all of which maintain a cultural milieu which academic spaces aren’t immune to. The latter portion of this Kafila article linked earlier, has a lot to say about why academic scholarship on Indology can’t exactly thrive when bowdlerizing book-pulpers claiming to defend civilization remain at large in ‘civil society’. Further, ostensible attempts at greater inclusion of historically excluded groups into the Hindu fold, as this Caravan feature describes, have not stopped with benign acculturation or have had an emancipatory effect, but have been approached with an attitude of annexation, conquest and a religious variant of ethnic cleansing.

      An Indian counterpart of the Confucius Institutes , aimed at promoting classical languages and Indology, if not marred by jingoism and revisionism, would go a long way in giving a fillip to Indology. If one dispassionately examines recent events for what stands in the way of such an initiative, who has caused greater harm to a public understanding of Indology : the ‘Marxist and Orientalist academic establishment’, or self-styled ‘cultural nationalists’ dictating and decimating reading lists? Is it paranoid to fear that the translation products of the Murthy Classical Library, some of which will have ‘mature content’, will be subject to campus-blackouts and pulping thanks to cultural-nationalist zealots in India?

      • Your clarification is happily acknowledged. I’ll make two points, however:

        (1) Regarding the date of the Bhagavata Purana. Bryant writes, “As early as the Atharvaveda of circa 1000 BCE, there is reference to ‘the Purana’ … it is thus futile to speak of absolute dates for any Purana as a whole since one would have to speak of the age of individual sections… hence Puranic scholars such as Rocher (1986) decline even to attempt to date them… I will simply note here that the majority of scholars hold that the bulk of the material in most of the eighteen Puranas we find today… reached its completion by the Gupta period… on the grounds that neither the later dynasties nor famous rulers such as Harsha [are found].” http://www.amazon.com/Krishna-Beautiful-Bhagavata-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140447997

        I would thus say that 2000 years, while a little on the greater side, is a decent age for the date.

        (2) You misunderstand my usage of the term “Orientalist.” I use it in the Saidian sense, and understanding it specifically with respect to India, use it to mean a scholar who is preoccupied with Sanskrit texts and the Vedic Age and willfully ignores vernacular texts, archaeological finds, and recent Indian history while attempting to explain away everything about India using what he/she might know about the Vedic or early medieval era. There is also a neglect of the subaltern– something Doniger intentionally seeks to remedy in her book. (She has called herself a “recovering Orientalist.”) Needless to say, such scholars don’t exist anymore, yet people which such tendencies are still around.

        • Arvind Iyer

          The followup and references are gladly acknowledged as well. As a potentially useful aside, here is a discussion acknowledging the remedying influence of the Saidian reading, with some concerns expressed about what we may, in a lighter vein, call ‘post-Saidianism gone rogue’.

  • The above article was an anguished plea to recall alternatives, and now it seems that it is not just alternative narratives that are under threat, but even quotes of ‘standard’ narratives that are being silenced. At the time of writing, On Hinduism has been recalled as well. One of the ‘offensive sections’ cited by the petitioners (from the news item here ) is this: Rama’s mother, and then Lakshmana, who says, ‘ I don’t like this. The king is perverse, old and debauched by pleasure. What would he not say under pressure, mad with passion as he is? The petitioners are either unaware or cynically feign ignorance of the following verse :
    Valmiki Ramayana Ayodhya Kanda Sarga 21 Verse 3
    A translation even less flattering of Dasharatha is offered in C Rajagopalachari’s version available here : Even your enemies, O Raama, when they look at you begin to love you, but this dotard of a father sends you to the forest. Both Rajagopalachari and K M Munshi, publisher of that version of the Ramayana and founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan were in their time considered Hindu stalwarts and respected spokespersons of Hinduism. Those who self-identify as Hindus today, at least those among them who would like to consider themselves literate and liberal, must be gravely concerned about the precipitous fall in the quality of their spokespersons from those endowed with classical scholarship to bumptious demagogues and cultural protection-racketeers who make a mockery of India’s much-vaunted intellectual traditions.

    So much for why liberal Hindus, whom I am told constitute a silent majority, must be concerned about The Hindus and On Hinduism. Why should humanists be concerned about the straitjacketing and suffocation of mythical narratives and retellings? That is a question that is posed to me frequently offline and will attempt to address it here with an illustration. In this section of a Tamil video made by members of Orinam, a Chennai-based organization for LGBT advocacy, a participant speaks of how an writings by Devdutt Pattanaik on homosexuality in Indian epics were a useful conversation-starter while coming-out to a straight friend interested in Indian lore. In a report of the Bangalore Pride Walk of 2013 published on this very blog, one of the placards is quoted as asking “Our epics do not discriminate, why do we?” Well, it turns out that while the epics by themselves don’t lend themselves to a single discriminatory slogan and may on occasion supply a humanist slogan, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan’s reading (actually its ‘unreading’ and attempted unwriting) of the epics does indeed discriminate.

    Be it Batra or Koushal , the discriminatory readings of epics or law represent different fronts in the same larger struggle. It is such custodians of ‘normalcy’ , who with ostensibly constitutional means but relying on the unspoken, implicit and very palpable threat (and all-too-real history ) of orchestrated civil unrest who are attempting (and alarmingly appearing to succeed)in an attempt at usurpation of cultural space and disinheriting anyone whom they consider not ‘normal’, of any remaining socio-cultural capital . This cultural disenfranchisement calls for a resolute resistance to enforced dourness and colourlessness with undimmed rainbows, and can begin with something as simple as Iranian youngsters celebrating a ‘pagan’ Nowruz in the face of the Ayatollahs’ strictures.

  • Captain Mandrake

    http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/03/06/opinion/banned-in-bangalore.html

    Wendy Doniger has an op-ed piece in NYT on this issue.

  • I disagree with Doniger on so many points in that op-ed. She places too much store in the British colonizers.

    The Puranas are 1700 years old. Is it so hard to believe that sexual mores in India have changed since then? And also– the Puranas were written by a subset of the Brahmin population. In her book, Doniger claims to bring the voices of lower castes and women into the picture, but by assuming Brahminical sexual mores were always everyone elses, she defeats her own purpose.

    The genealogy of sexual mores in India is a complex issue. It deserves to be treated as such.

    • And then this sentence:

      The Victorian factor also accounts for the Hindutva antipathy to sex. (Here it is not irrelevant that the Indian Supreme Court recently reinstated an 1861 law criminalizing homosexuality.)

      This is an ignorance of civics. From an article, “The supreme court judges argued that the Delhi high court had overstepped its powers with the decision four years ago as only India’s government could change the law.” And after this, a Supreme Court justice even SAID that it was in Parliament’s power to change the law if they wished.

      As bad as the decision was, it was one about the Constitution, not the law itself– as all Supreme Court decisions anywhere are.

    • Doniger, in both the book and the editorial, is unambiguously, with little room for confusion is saying the following:
      (1) Prudish sexual mores did not prevail across community lines in the India(s) of antiquity.
      (2) Prudish sexual mores were adopted from various influences including Victorian ones by some of the dominant sections of society in the fairly recent history of India.
      So where is the ‘confusion’ or ‘missed complexity’, when she’s only saying that the colonial experience was among the influences that left the power-wielders of Indian society more hypocritically prudish than they were earlier?

      • I think it’s unambiguous that she places the blame squarely on Victorianism in her article.

        “The Victorian factor also accounts for the Hindutva antipathy to sex”

        “n my defense, I can tell you there is a lot of sex in Hinduism, and therefore a lot of puritanism in Hindutva”

        Hindutva isn’t– and wasn’t– the only brand of Hinduism that is more prudish. You just simply cannot make such a generalization about 2000 years of history in a land that spans the distance from Istanbul to London, east to west.

        It’s the same mistake Nicholas Dirks makes when he says the British “invented” caste. It took Susan Bayly to give his arguments a more nuanced treatment.

        And it’s the same mistake Ajita Kamal makes in his “Hindu Usurpation of National Identity” article. He talks about some “cognitive dissonance” and says that because the Dharmasastras hate sex but Khajuraho exists, Hinduism builds “cognitive dissonance.” Is it so hard to imagine that the prudish Dharmasastra Brahmins and the builders of Khajuraho came from different worlds?

        • She makes the same argument about the Shiva linga. She acknowledges that nonsexual interpretations existed (like in the Kannappa myth). That’s fine.

          But then she says that people simultaneously believed in the sexual and nonsexual interpretation until suddenly the British came.

          To borrow an argument from Nivedita Menon, just as one person would not believe two Ramayanas, so too would one person not hold conflicting interpretations in his or her head.

        • Captain Mandrake

          Amit,

          **I think it’s unambiguous that she places the blame squarely on Victorianism in her article.

          “The Victorian factor also accounts for the Hindutva antipathy to sex”**

          Not to nitpick, but I would have agreed with you had she said “The Victorian factor alone accounts for the Hindutva antipathy to sex”.

          She certainly is unambiguous about Victorian factor playing a role in Hindutva’s antipathy to sex. But just from the line you quoted you can not conclude that she thinks that Victorian factor alone is to blame for the Hindutva antipathy to sex.

          PS: I have not read the book. Only read the Op-ed piece.

        • Doniger’s op-ed is suffused with a sense of humour that is rarely associated with academics in folklore, and which also makes The Hindus a romp of a read. One wonders why the notion that professors can’t be funny is so widespread. Doniger revels in wordplay and one can almost hear a chuckle off the page in the underplayed wit of Amartya Sen, like in the quote in the article postscript. Beyond witticisms, I admit I am not wholly able to share in Prof. Doniger’s sanguine assessment of the mobilization of liberal voices that this episode has occasioned, because this mobilization stands outnumbered and overstretched in the face of threats on too many fronts , some imminent and some already manifest.

          Attempts towards outreach and public understanding of any discipline will involve some bumper-sticker one-liners which true-blue academics will consider oversimplifications. Consider for example Amartya Sen’s line “Famines don’t happen in democracies.” which even auto-completes itself in the Google search bar, and is criticized for not being a ‘universal law’ . Well, a statement like that didn’t pretend to be any sort of ‘law’ in the first place, and it goes without saying that an unspoken ceteris paribus or by and large precedes them. Statements like Doniger’s, suggesting that the Victorian influence left Indian society less permissive than earlier, can perhaps be similarly treated. The anxiety of some academics from Indology-related disciplines to frantically footnote every quip of Doniger, is understandable given that they would like their field well-represented in social media when it enjoys the fleeting spotlight, and it would be great if this eagerness to furnish footnotes extends to other instances where revisionist records need setting straight, rather than the views of rival academics. That said, I am not able to straightaway assume that academicians in Doniger’s field are immune to the sort of resentment that many ‘establishment scientists’ had towards science-popularizer-extraordinaire Carl Sagan.

          Speaking of competing explanations for the eclectic nature of scriptures or shrines, neither the ‘authors-from-different-worlds’ explanation and ‘the-same-author-conflicted-and-confused’ explanation seem to have the odds overwhelmingly stacked for them. Authors who were zealots might soften their line in later work, and soft-liners maybe born again and thus ‘generational differences’ in the same ‘world’ can be a source of diversity and contradiction. Can we know for sure if the apparent in-situ satire of the Vedas in the Vedas, of the chanting frogs mentioned by Doniger, is a subversive inclusion or an instance of insiders ‘laughing at themselves’? Different worlds can merge into each other too, like the medical practice described by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya in Science and Society in Ancient India, resulting from a mutual adoption of practices of forest herbalists and urban theorists of ‘three humours’. The Indian ease with eclecticism is of course legendary. Like a national pastime of book-balancing, keeping contradictions in one’s head seems to have been elevated to a fine art, be it in heterodox ideas like Syadvada or even in theological ideas like Achintyabhedabheda . A dramatic illustration of the eclectic pantheon-building that comes naturally to Indians can be found in the header picture of this blog , described in that blog’s FAQ .

    • Satish Chandra

      I’d prefer if you stuck to using one user handle when commenting on this site. Unless you want to earn a perma ban. Again.

  • Untangling The Knot
    The many strands entangled in l’ affaire Doniger involve issues that are too important to be left to the predictable and somewhat stale rhetoric about Hindutva fanatics or lamenting the role of the Indian government and judiciary
    JAKOB DE ROOVER http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?289559

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