Hinduism pundits or Hindu baiters? (Book Review)

By M.R. Narayan Swamy ,

Title: Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America: Editors: Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee; Publisher: Rupa; Pages: 545; Price: Not listed.

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This book is a compilation of the Hindu anger that followed questionable scholarship on Hinduism studies in the US, primarily by those linked to the powerful American Academy of Religion. The anger had been simmering in the Indian diaspora for a long time. It took one man, Rajiv Malhotra, to hit back at the American experts on Hinduism, notably the well known Wendy Doniger. Malhotra accused these pundits of unleashing “Hinduphobia”. This was the tipping point. The spark spread like a wildfire in the Indian American community, forcing the American academics to brand the accused as ‘Hindutva’ and ‘saffron’ preachers.

What Malhotra and others – including some white Americans with personal spiritual connections to Hinduism — found was that many inauthentic translations and interpretations had been popularized by these “experts”. One of the culprits shockingly described one of India’s most respected spiritual gurus, a worshipper of Kali, as a sexual pervert and more.

Indian critics of such dubious scholarship uncovered more. There was recurring overemphasis on Hindu Goddess’ sensational, sexual and violent aspects. The favourite target was Kali. Male Hindu Gods were not spared either. There were virtual pornographic interpretive descriptions of some of the better known Gods, so demeaning that had members of another community uttered these very words, there would be bloody riots in India. And tantra, we are told, is not a legitimate spiritual process!

Since these books were authored by Doniger and (mostly) her students, they would eventually get into American textbooks, popular culture and media, “thus becoming the accepted lenses through which many aspects of Indian culture are viewed”. Indeed, an introductory college textbook said that Shiva temples were “notorious for all kinds of extreme practices, including ritual rape and murder”. All these had devastating consequences for Hindus in the US, particularly to Indian American children in classrooms.

Malhotra and the others rightly complained that Doniger and other American scholars tend to stereotype Hindu thought and traditions, trivializing its rationality. “Hinduism, like all faiths, has its problematic aspects.” But what disturbed the Indian diaspora was that some high profile scholars “allege that these abuses are the very essence of Hinduism, and not an aberration”. When Doniger authored the section on Hinduism in Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia, it had to be withdrawn when it was found to be full of bias and stereotypes.

This is a powerful book, as powerful as the entrenched American experts on Hindu studies. It includes essays that are critical analyses of what is dished out to be factual knowledge on one of the world’s oldest religions. Others are critical of the application of European ideas to Indian culture. The book is also “an attempt to reverse the gaze on the West”.

( M.R. Narayan Swamy is Executive Editor at IANS. He can be reached on [email protected])