Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Much Misunderstood Ms Wendy Doniger

It seems appropriate to begin this post with an episode from a Hindu epic. :-)

When Hanuman leaped (or flew -- I can never tell from the kind of adventures he had along the way) across the ocean to Lanka in search of Sita, one of the obstacles he faced was the demoness Simhika, who tried to drag him down by grabbing his shadow. Now, any elementary school student who understands the phenomenon of shadows will know that it is impossible for someone to be grabbed by their shadow. Yet, that's what the story says.

To my mind, the image of a person being grabbed by their shadow is a metaphor for something we see all the time in the world. It stands for the way people become defensive when their group identity is challenged in some way, because group identity is a shadowy and entirely fictitious construct. We choose to identify with one group or another, and often with more than one, depending on context. (For example, when I read an article on Western soldiers in Afghanistan and the article quotes a jihadist's extreme statements, I immediately identify with the Western soldiers, but in the same article, when one of these soldiers is quoted saying something derogatory about non-Western cultures, I identify just as readily with the "ragheads".) Group identity is often unconsciously adopted, and when we think of our racial appearance, for example, it may seem that we have no choice in the matter, but it is always a choice. And so it is amusing that a shadow that we voluntarily cast has the ability to drag us down when it is pulled.

A great many Hindus seem to have had their shadows pulled in recent times, and the demoness (!) who has accomplished this is Wendy Doniger, the foremost Western expert on Hinduism. (To be fair to her, she has probably studied more about Hinduism than the average Hindu.)

There are three main criticisms that people make about Wendy Doniger's writings on Hinduism:

1. Her scholarship is suspect; her knowledge of Sanskrit is imperfect
2. Her interpretations of Hindu symbols and myths is overly sexualised
3. She seems to be on a covert mission to denigrate Hinduism even while posing as one of its scholars

Indeed, it was the last of these criticisms that rang true with me. I admit I have not read a complete book or article written by Ms Doniger, but from the snippets that I read here and there, it seemed to me that a telltale element was missing from her writing that one would expect to find in scholars who have devoted their lives to studying a subject - affection.

Affection, however incongruous, is what we find in scientists who study horror-inspiring creatures such as spiders, scorpions, crocodiles, snakes, sharks and the like. A commonly used term that indicates to me that a person is being an apologist for a generally unpopular subject is the word "misunderstood". Thus, sharks are "beautiful but misunderstood creatures", Islam is "a misunderstood religion", etc. That's how scholars of unpopular subjects defend their own. No scholar worth their salt would attack their own subject, no matter how loathsome it may be in the popular imagination.

And so, the lack of evident affection for Hinduism in the writings of Wendy Doniger (and to an even greater extent, many of her students like Jeffrey Kripal, Paul Courtwright and Sarah Caldwell) seemed to call into question their bona fides as scholars, and strongly suggested that there might in fact be a Western academic conspiracy against India and against Hinduism, as Rajiv Malhotra has often alleged.

"[...] as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren’t a priest."
"What?" asked the thief, almost gaping.
"You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It’s bad theology."
- "The Blue Cross" from "The Innocence of Father Brown" by GK Chesterton

Not displaying affection for one's subject is bad scholarship, and Doniger lately seems to have woken up to it. In a recent interview, she positively gushes with (affected?) affection for Hinduism, and the interviewer plays along. He refers to parts of her latest book "On Hinduism", and quotes her statement that "during times of great loss or even great happiness, she found herself thinking in Hindu categories" and that she found the god Shiva to be "specific, beautiful, violent, charming and terrifying." She then goes on to respond at length, and the barely-concealed effort at outreach deserves to be quoted in full:

I was attracted to Hinduism because I found meaning in the stories, [meaning] which I felt was not limited to someone who was actually a worshipping, believing Hindu. The stories had a wisdom and a sad reality to them in some ways. When you look at the world around you, when you read the headlines in the papers, or walk through any city or any landscape, it seemed to me that it was not a world that was well covered by the ideas of the religions I had been raised in, the world of Christianity and Judaism and America, and it seemed to me that Shiva was the kind of god who could have made the world we live in, that the extremes of passion and power and beauty, and the terrible things that human beings do to one another all over the world and that happen in natural catastrophes, earthquakes and floods and things like that, that's Shiva! That's what it must be like, that's what the deity in charge of everything must be like. The Hindu concept of what Shiva is like, with his beautiful dance and his terrible dance and his beauty and his power and his ruthlessness, just made sense to me.
The Hindu ideas of why there is suffering, why there is evil in this world, what meaning it has, what kind of a pattern there may be that is meaningful despite the apparently random occurrences of tragic events, tragedies and personal tragedies, that was really what made sense of what was happening to me. And I've always felt that the Hindu ideas about karma are very realistic, are very useful in thinking about the consequences of the things you do, and the possible ways in which you could have gotten into the fixes you find yourself in - karma explains those things better than anything I know.
And I also love the ashramas, the idea of the stages of life. [...] The last essay in the book is the essay on the forest-dweller stage, about how I feel about what is supposed to go on in the forest-dweller stage, it's exactly what's happening to me now, and how nice it is, what a lovely stage of life it is. When you're still doing things, but things don't matter the way they mattered when you were in the thick of it, when you were growing up and trying to figure out who you were and what you wanted to accomplish in life, and all of that, it's a great pleasure, really, to be done with that, and still, not to be in sanyaas, which I could never do. I'm temperamentally not fitted for sanyaas, but vanaprastha, yes. So even that made more sense to me than the Western paradigms.
I resonate with the Hindu aesthetic. I just love Hindu temples much better than I ever loved the most beautiful cathedrals in France [...] never moved me the way that the Meenakshi temples or the Khajuraho temples do, or Kailasnath or Ellora, those seem to be really, really holy places and beautiful places, and I really love Indian music, particularly the Sharod (I pronounce it in the Bengali mode because I learnt to play it when I was living in Calcutta). I love the way there are no frets on a Sarod. Your hand just slides up and down, I think that's the way music should be rather than a piano, where every note is separate. I just think the sarod is a better way to construct a musical instrument. [...] Indian literature of course, Indian food, the way women dress in India, the saris, the colours of the saris, and you know, I was raised just to wear black, a little brown maybe, maybe a little tasteful grey, and I always hated that. I always wanted to wear purple and orange at the same time, and everyone would say, "Oh, are you going to a circus?" or something like that. So, in addition to the ideas that Hinduism is based on and the image of the particular god Shiva, I just love the way that Hinduism is painted in its own arts and in the way it's sung and the way it's painted and carved and sculpted and written about, so it's meant a great deal to me, these years of living with Hinduism.
Quite an elaborate exercise in PR, it seemed to me, but probably a little late in the day. What she's obviously trying to do here is rebut the third accusation above, i.e., that she is not a well-wisher of Hinduism.

The other part of her interview where she tacitly acknowledges the first accusation, i.e., about her lack of strong scholarship in Sanskrit, is also probably a deliberate repositioning of herself. She admits that she was never interested in the things she was supposed to be interested in - Panini (the Sanskrit grammarian) or Kaavya (the Sanskrit literary style). She also says she was never into philosophy, which she uses to explain her lack of interest in Nyaaya and Vedanta. It appears that she wants to position herself as a "pop" scholar, one who studies myth and stories rather than serious texts. There's nothing wrong with that, and it is in this (earlier) part of the interview that Doniger seems most genuine.

She says that when she reads stories, her ears are sensitised to listen to voices that are "underrepresented, overlooked, suppressed -- women, animals, "lower" castes". She refers to her own identity and background as a "woman, Jewish at a time of anti-Semitism, growing up during the civil rights movement, [with a] mother who was very left-wing at the time of McCarthyism, sensitised to the issues of the underdog and the suppression of human rights [...]".

"[...] the voice that was still there despite the overlay of the almost-always brahmin scribe who wrote the story down. You could hear lower-caste voices, and you could hear women's voices. It wasn't hard to find, mixed in with the dominant culture which was caste-oriented and misogynist."

As an infracaninophile myself, I can identify with that. (There, that's an example of group identity at work!)

If that is indeed the lens through which Doniger has studied and interpreted Hindu texts (i.e., by siding with the marginalised elements of Hindu society), then I have sympathy for her view. It would also explain her seeming lack of affection for the Hindu establishment and its value systems. Traditionalist defences of Hinduism against heterodox viewpoints like hers are then just defending a certain social order that we of today would have a difficult time justifying in our own society - the crude and overt caste-based discrimination at every stage and walk of life, the relegation of women to chattel status, and the lack of concern for animal rights. It is the kind of society that needs to remain in the distant past. However, when a foreigner to our culture holds up an uncomfortable mirror to the evils of our past, she pulls our collective shadow and drags us down. It speaks eloquently of the power of group identity. We would rather close ranks in defence of an indefensible society than accept that it was in many ways unspeakably evil.

And closely related to this is the issue of sexualisation, which is the second argument made against her. It may be the case that Doniger and her ilk have sexualised their subject to an excessive and unwarranted extent. However, this could be adequately explained by commercial drivers ("sex sells") rather than a nefarious plot of civilisational dimensions. And besides, modern Hindu society has also been "desexualised" to an equally unnatural degree. The versions of Hindu epics that have been served to us through Amar Chitra Katha comics and TV serials have been significantly bowdlerised of their sexual content. And the blame for this seems to lie in over six hundred years of domination by sexually repressed foreign cultures, namely the Muslims and the Victorians. We have lost innocence and gained a sense of guilt by association with these Abrahamic religions. The Kamasutra and the explicit carvings of Khajuraho embarrass us now. We would rather have the aseptic Taj Mahal presented as a symbol of India than the sensuous stone carvings of Hindu temples. So while the Hindu outrage at Doniger's prurience is partly justified, it seems that we do protest too much.

I'm actually not able to take sides very strongly in this debate, except to say that the one thing we must preserve is the freedom to express ideas and to debate them strongly, without censorship, either of the governmental kind (the ban) or of the civil kind (the libel suit). Without the conflict of ideas, human society cannot progress.

And finally, no god or demon should be able to pull us down by grabbing at our shadows. Our identities need to be a lot more secure than that.
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