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A Hindu God must indeed be Heathen

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

Academic freedom and free speech rights are vigorously, nay vociferously defended in the US  How pugnaciously we do so and whether such pugnacity is warranted in all cases will be highlighted when the annual American Academy of Religion (AAR) conference begins in Atlanta on November 21.  Either officially or unofficially people will debate whether the campaign against Paul Courtright’s book on the Hindu God, Ganesha (Ganeśa – Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings), is defensible or not.  As the book was published in 1985 and it had won an award from the American Council of Learned Societies it seems moot to be debating the contents of the book now or about Courtright’s freedom to write and publish such a book.  However, the controversy has been rekindled (India Abroad, November 7, 2003) and so needs to be addressed. 

Courtright has said that academic freedom allows him to write freely about a subject that he has studied.  He peevishly dismisses the challenge to his scholarship by asking if he should seek the “permission of 800 million Hindus” to describe and analyze Hindu gods, practices, beliefs and rituals.  In making this statement, Courtright seems to have ignored what his peers in the American Association of University Professors recommend about the pursuit of free inquiry: “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution”.

The most important advice that the AAUP proffers is that scholars “should at all times be accurate” and that they “should exercise appropriate restraint”.  These injunctions become even more important when scholars write about other people’s beliefs and life experiences.  At issue is whether Courtright has accurately analyzed the various Ganesha myths and stories and whether in any traditional text he finds anything close to his interpretation. 

Using Freudian analysis to interpret the beheading of Ganesha and what the elephant head of Ganesha as well as his other characteristics symbolize, Courtright indeed has transgressed the boundary of “ethical” and “responsible” inquiry.  It is not just that Courtright is not a trained psychologist; he does not provide a single piece of evidence to show that his analysis has either a traditional/historical/factual basis or whether it can be corroborated by any social scientific methods.  However, his pronouncements on Ganesha have now been sanctified by academe and reified by public institutions.  For example, the famous Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore presents the large 11th century Ganesha carving in its collection thus:  “Ganeśa, is a son of the great god Siva and many of his abilities are comic or absurd extensions of the lofty dichotomies of his father…. Ganeśa’s potbelly and his childlike love for sweets mock Siva’s practice of austerities and his limp trunk will forever be a poor match for Siva’s erect phallus.”  The only way the curators of the museum could have got the idea that Ganesha’s elephant trunk symbolizes a limp penis would be from Courtright’s tome. 

Courtright claims that “it is more important to trace the thematic and metaphoric connections between the myths and rituals than to trace the historical development of ritual practices”.  What he does not bother to ask is the more important question: for whom is this important?  Is it important for Hindu believers or is it important for a Western secular project on Hinduism?  No doubt many Indians feel that Courtright’s book is an example of a more serious issue – “that of the representation of Hinduism in Western academia in a manner that the Hindus themselves reject”. 

Alan Roland of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, critiquing a more recent work on another Indian subject similar to Courtright’s, points out that the use of psychoanalysis in religion studies leads mostly to “facile interpretations of the unconscious from textual material, of the equally facile use of primary process symbolization on culturally imbued symbols such as Kali’s sword and Krishna’s flute and of increasing certitude and conviction of the rightness of (one’s) interpretations in an area that is essentially speculative”.

A rare few among Western scholars have begun to express their concerns about the nature of such suspect work.  Unfortunately, such scholars have been muzzled or ostracized by the powerful and entrenched scholars in the “Religion in South Asia” group at the American Academy of Religion.  Dr. Antonio de Nicholas, Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, complained about Courtright’s book and argued that “the first responsibility of a scholar in describing, writing, speaking and teaching other cultures is to present those cultures or the elements of those cultures in the same manner those cultures are viewed by themselves and by the people of those cultures.” He also warned that if scholars did not use that particular rigorous standard, “then the scholar is using those cultures in name only and his goal is their destruction, if not in intention at least in fact.  A scholar who does not know how to present other cultures by their own criteria should not be allowed to teach those cultures.  His freedom of speech is not guaranteed by his ignorance.  His degree is a privilege of knowledge, not ignorance. Freedom stops here.  Opinions are not the food of the classroom at the hands of professors.  They guarantee knowledge”.  Unfortunately, it is doubtful if the entrenched Hinduism scholars will pay heed to his sage advice and serious warning.  As recently as November 12, Wendy Doniger, Courtright’s mentor, spoke in London on “Gods, Humans and Animals in the Ramayana” and regaled her British audience with lurid tales about the possible sexual relationships in the epic, among them between Lakshmana and Sita.

Hindus, however, have begun to protest this assault on what and whom they hold dear and consider sacred.  Initially, when a Hindu group in Atlanta complained to the President of Emory University, where Courtright teaches, they got a sanctimonious and patronizing letter from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Robert Paul, who said that like “any great research university”, Emory “never condemns any point of view simply on the grounds that it may be controversial or even offensive to some people”. Would he dare say that about Islamic scholarship, or about Judaism studies, or about inquiry into African-American life at Emory University?  The Dean claims that the only exceptions that Emory University makes “are for claims made on the basis of willful untruths or which otherwise violate the rules of academic integrity, or for statements made solely for the purpose of willfully demeaning or insulting some person or group”. Back-pedaling a few weeks later, the Dean seems to be now calling for some kind of dialogue.  What can we expect from such dilatory tactics?

Dean Paul condescendingly informs his complainants that Courtright’s scholarship “involves the application of a theory that, though controversial, is widely accepted in academic circles as a legitimate one in a work of scholarship clearly written in good faith”.  In fact, Freudian analysis of historical texts is suspect and has lost its legitimacy except it seems in Hinduism studies.  Further, if it is written in good faith will Emory University countenance “scholarship” that demeans the status of Prophet Mohammed or for that matter even of Martin Luther King Jr., even if they are based on facts and historical events?

Dean Paul admonishes the letter writers by saying that “the best strategy for those who disagree with or find troubling a particular point of view is not to seek its suppression or condemnation, which will never happen, but to put forward their own views in the free market-place of ideas that we at the university guard as our most basic principle”.  He presumes that the playing field in these matters is level.  At present there are no Hindu equivalents for academic journals in the US, there are no Hindu presses and radio and television stations, no central body to represent Hindu interests and only one “infant” Hindu university that can take on the might of well-endowed universities and their well-paid scholars. 

So, what can the two-million Indian-Americans do to counter the Goliath that is Western academe?  It seems as if sling-shots in the form of petition-drives can be an effective strategy in the short term.  Longer term, we need to pay attention to what kinds of “India chairs” we fund, how we recover interest in and knowledge about our own civilizational contributions, take the initiative to establish our own presses, radio and television stations and encourage Indian-American students to take up higher studies in Indian languages, religions and the traditional arts and sciences.

Originally published on November 28, 2003.

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