Posted on 28-10-2009
Filed Under (India, Religion) by Rashtrakut

A close family friend forwarded me the latest offering from Wendy Doniger on Hinduism.  I first became aware about the controversy surrounding the good professor during the dispute a few years ago regarding Professor Courtright’s book about Ganesha.  For a discussion of the academic analysis behind that particularly book see here.  The revelations of the incestuous peer review process in humanities academia (which is something I previously noticed in my education)  have soured my perceptions of humanities and social science academia.  There is already a critique of Doniger’s book by Aditi Banerjee on line. See here.

Doniger and her cohorts have the tedious tendency to dismiss all her critics as Hindutva fundamentalists.  However, the controversy surrounding their scholarship does raise some questions: (a) how appropriate is it to apply the social mores of today in reviewing books written thousands of years back rather than the cultural context of the time? (b) how effective is a peer review process when most of the reviewers are not practitioners of that religion, and (c) who gets to define a religion, its practitioners or academic scholars who openly admit they are not practitioners.

These are not straight forward questions and the answers in my opinion can come tinged in gray.  Research into Hinduism and provocative theories and research into Hinduism should be encouraged and the perspective of someone raised outside a cultural milieu can provide valuable insight or provide a thought provoking moment for practitioners.  The problem is that Hinduism academia in the United States is largely filled by non-practitioners and non-Indians.  Even with the best of intentions it very easy to miss cultural contexts in this isolated academic ivory tower.

However, the 1000 lb gorilla in the room is whether the mis-characterization of Hindu texts and beliefs (even if unintentional) will be used for propaganda purposes.  Post 9/11 we have already seen how selectively quoting verses from the Quran can be used to demonize a whole faith.  It will be naive to assume that the works of Doniger and Courtright are not been eagerly lapped up for aggressive missionary work in India.

Doniger’s book by its title indicates that it should not be used as an introduction to Hinduism.  An “alternative history” suggests a book written to advance a view-point or an agenda. However, Doniger’s high profile presence in American academia suggests that it will be used exactly for that purpose.   And that creates the risk that a work by an admitted non-practitioner whose scholarship has been questioned could become part of the academic curriculum in the United States.

Doniger’s book will generate the inevitable firestorm.  One hopes that the critiques and reviews that come steer clear of ad hominem attacks and focus instead on the substance of her book.  This will require a dispassionate reading of ancient texts which may lead to some unsettling conclusions.  However, this will generate a genuine exchange of ideas and opinions that ultimately will serve the cause of American scholarship on Hinduism.

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