Over a Hindu God
By Shankar Vedantam
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
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
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."
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,"
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."