Wrath Over a Hindu God
By Shankar Vedantam

Folklore has it that elephants never forget, and Paul Courtright has reason to believe it. A professor of religion at Emory University, he immersed himself in the story of Ganesha, the beloved Hindu god with the head of an elephant. Detecting provocative Oedipal overtones in Ganesha's story -- and phallic symbolism in his trunk -- he wrote a book setting out his theories in 1985.

Nineteen years later, thanks to an Internet campaign, the world has rediscovered Courtright's book. After a scathing posting on a popular Indian Web site, he has received threats from Hindu militants who want him dead.

"Gopal from Singapore said, 'The professor bastard should be hanged,' " said Courtright, incredulous. "A guy from Germany said, 'Wish this person was next to me, I would have shot him in the head.' A man called Karodkar said, 'Kill the bastard. Whoever wrote this should not be spared.' Someone wanted to throw me into the Indian Ocean." Other academics writing about Hinduism have encountered similar hostility, from tossed eggs to assaults to threats of extradition and prosecution in India.

The attacks against American scholars come as a powerful movement called Hindutva has gained political power in India, where most of the world's 828 million Hindus live. Its proponents assert that Hindus have long been denigrated and that Western authors are imposing a Eurocentric world view on a culture they do not understand.  That argument resonates among many of the roughly 1.4 million Hindus in North America as well.

In November, Wendy Doniger, a University of Chicago professor of the history of religion who has written 20 books about India and Hinduism, had an egg flung at her by an angry Hindu when she was lecturing in London. It missed.

In January, a book about the Hindu king Shivaji by Macalester College religious studies professor James W. Laine provoked violent outbursts: One of Laine's collaborators in India was assaulted, and a mob destroyed rare manuscripts at an institute in India where Laine had done research. The Indian edition was recalled, and India's prime minister warned Laine not to "play with our national pride." Officials said they want to extradite the Minnesota author to stand trial for defamation, and the controversy has become a campaign issue in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Doniger, a 63-year-old scholar at the center of many controversies, is distressed to see her field come under the sway of what she regards as zealots. "The argument," she said, "is being fueled by a fanatical nationalism and Hindutva, which says no one has the right to make a mistake, and no one who is not a Hindu has the right to speak about Hinduism at all."


The recent controversy began not in New Delhi but in New Jersey. In an essay posted on a Web site called Sulekha.com, New Jersey entrepreneur Rajiv Malhotra argued that Doniger and her students had eroticized and denigrated Hinduism, which was part of the reason "the American mainstream misunderstands India so pathologically." Malhotra criticized in particular a book for which Doniger had written the foreword -- Courtright's "Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings." The book drew psychoanalytic inferences about Ganesha, also known as Ganesa or Ganpathi, the son of the Hindu god Shiva and his wife, Parvati.

According to Hindu scriptures, Parvati asked Ganesha to guard her privacy while she was bathing. Shiva, who had been absent, returned to find the boy blocking his way. A fight ensued, and Shiva beheaded Ganesha. When Parvati protested, Shiva repaired his hasty action by resuscitating the child and replacing the missing head with that of an elephant.

Courtright, drawing on the story of a conflict between a woman's husband and son, suggested that Shiva had chosen an elephant's head because the trunk represented a limp phallus. By contrast, he said, Shiva's power is represented in idols by a linga, or an erect phallus.

In his posting, Malhotra quoted passages from Courtright's book that offended him: "Although there seem to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesha explicitly performs oral sex, his insatiable appetite for sweets may be interpreted as an effort to satisfy a hunger that seems inappropriate in an otherwise ascetic disposition, a hunger having clear erotic overtones." Malhotra's critique produced a swift and angry response from thousands of Hindus. An Atlanta group wrote to the president of Emory University asking that Courtright be fired.

"The implication," said Courtright, "was this was a filthy book and I had no business teaching anything." He said the quotes had been taken out of context and ignored the uplifting lessons he had drawn from Ganesha's story. Salman Akhtar, an Indian American psychoanalyst, said the disagreement sprang from different worldviews. "Are religious stories facts or myths?" he asked. "Facts cannot be interpreted. Stories can be interpreted." The book was withdrawn in India, where the local edition's book jacket, which Courtright had neither seen nor approved, depicted Ganesha as a child -- in the nude.

"It was very painful reading," said T.R.N. Rao, a computer science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who advises the university's branch of the Hindu Student Council, a national group with Hindutva roots. "It makes Ganesha a eunuch . . . It was very vulgar." Rao and the council started an Internet petition against the book. Seven thousand people signed within a week -- and among their comments were 60 threats of violence.

The petition was swiftly removed. "We condemn any threats to the author and the publisher," said Rao. "We wanted to get the book corrected and replaced. . . . We are not asking for banning the book. I am a professor and I know the value of academic freedom."

Courtright was not the first to find Oedipal overtones in the Ganesha story. But his book became a rallying point for devout Hindus in the United States who say the academic study of their religion is completely at odds with the way they experience their faith. "For the past five years, our field has been in turmoil," said Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University in Montreal, who sides with the critics even as he disavows the violence. "There may be a Hindutva connection in what happened in India and the death threats and the person who threw the egg, but there also is a Hindu response."

Sharma was asked to write an essay on Hinduism for Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia to replace a previous essay written by Doniger. The switch came after a Hindu activist, a former Microsoft engineer named Sankrant Sanu, charged that Doniger's article perpetuated misleading stereotypes and asked for a rewrite by an "insider." "For pretty much all the religious traditions in America, most of the people studying it are insiders," said Sanu. "They are people who are believers. This is true for Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. This is not true for Hinduism."

In January, fresh controversy along the same lines erupted over a book by Macalester College's Laine, "Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India," which explored the life of a 17th-century icon of the Hindutva movement. After Laine suggested in his book that Shivaji's parents may have been estranged -- an assertion that upset Hindus who see them as nearly divine -- a history scholar in India who had collaborated with Laine was roughed up and smeared with tar by members of Shiv Sena, a Hindutva group. Another nationalist group called the Sambhaji Brigade stormed the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in the city of Pune, and destroyed priceless manuscripts. The reason? Laine had done research there .

"No one in Pune today will defend my book, not my friends, not my colleagues, because they are fearful," Laine said. "Oxford University Press pulled the book because they are fearful of physical violence. There will be a chilling effect on what topics you choose to do."

Many Indian scholars have rushed to the defense of the American authors. They say the controversy over the books is part of a larger pattern of political violence against scholars in India. Doniger blames the Internet campaigns. "Malhotra's ignorant writings have stirred up more passionate emotions in Internet subscribers who know even less than Malhotra does, who do not read books at all," Doniger wrote in an e-mail. "And these people have reacted with violence. I therefore hold him indirectly responsible."

Dwarakanath Rao (no relation to T.R.N. Rao), a Hindu psychoanalyst in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Doniger had written moving interpretations of Hindu texts that made them accessible for the first time in North America. "I just do not hear disrespect," he said. "I hear a woman who, frankly, is in love with India."
Malhotra said he began his campaign after visiting African American scholars at Princeton University, who told him that it had taken the civil rights movement before black scholars were allowed into schools to tell their own history.

Hindus were only following in the footsteps of blacks, Jews and the Irish, he said, likening his campaign to a consumer struggle: "It's no different than Ralph Nader saying we need a consumer voice against General Motors."

Malhotra disavowed the violence -- he called the attackers "hooligans." He said he has campaigned against the Hindutva agenda and opposed the Internet petition against Courtright. "I know I am championed by the Hindu right but there is nothing I can do about that," he said.
Indeed, Malhotra's critique seems to have less to do with religious nationalism than public relations. Doniger and other academics are "an inbred, incestuous group that control a vertically integrated industry," the former telecom entrepreneur said. Unlike other critics' objections, Malhotra's is not that outsiders have written about India -- he has himself encouraged many Americans to study India -- but that the books have harmed the image of what he calls "India Inc."

"In America," he said, "everything is negotiable -- you have to negotiate who you are and how they think of you." Previously, Malhotra waged a campaign against CNN for coverage that he charged was biased toward India's rival, Pakistan. A foundation he has launched is dedicated to "upgrade the portrayal of India's civilization in the American education system and media."

This approach does not go down well within the academy. "We are not in the business of marketing a nation state," said Vijay Prashad, an international studies scholar at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in a recent Internet debate with Malhotra. "That is the job of the ambassador of India, not of a scholar."

McGill's Sharma, a practicing Hindu, countered that the academy had never been neutral, objective ground. Trends in academia have always been governed by shifts in public opinion: "The recalibration of a power equation is an untidy process." But if the controversies are only about influence, Doniger said, there was little use in discussing the merits of the various books, or her Encarta essay on Hinduism. "It does not matter whether the article published under my name was right or wrong," she said in an e-mail. "The only important thing about it was that I wrote it and someone named Sharma did not."