Section 2.02 Critique of Biases Against Hinduism = An Attack on Free Speech

In 2004, Ghadar, a publication of FOIL, Ra Ravishankar and Shefali Chandra, ridicule the youth organization HSC for publishing a presentation critiquing the portrayals of Hinduism by western academics.  In its ‘slightly deeper’ investigation of the Council, FOIL concludes: “Another section [of the HSC website] virulently lambasts the work of US academics Jeffrey Kripal, Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtwright (sic), thus establishing that free speech, even in the name of intellectual pursuits remains antithetical to the dogma of Hindu fundamentalism.”[1]  So, in essence, FOIL and its members are free to critique the works of any Hindu scholar or organization, but efforts done by the ‘insiders’ of the tradition (i.e. Hindu community members, scholars and organizations) are denounced as  attacks on free speech.  Unfortunately, the rules of play apply differently to FOIL and its affiliates versus Hindus.

FOIL readily ignores the biased views and research of these academic scholars.  For example, Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor at the Chicago Divinity School and probably the most influential US based academic scholar on Hinduism, has this to say about the Bhagavad Gita:

The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think… Throughout the Mahabharata … Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war…. The Gita is a dishonest book …[2]

This view, combined with the views of others like Kancha Ilaiah, form the basis of statements made by many of the FOIL members.  The above definition of Bhagavad Gita is at odds with the myriad of scholars, poets, famous personalities, spiritual leaders and saints that have appreciated the wisdom of the Gita.

In the Foreword to Paul Courtright’s book on Ganesha (discussed later in the section), Doniger claims that the Mabharata was dictated by Ganesha to Vyasa.[3]  Any Hindu or any individual who has ever read any translation of the Mahabharata knows that Vyasa dictated the epic to Ganesha!  Then, why is Doniger claiming the opposite?

Jeffrey Kripal, a Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, in his book Kali’s Child psychoanalyzes Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, one of the most revered spiritual saints of India.  Though Kripal lacks proper understanding of Bengali and Sanskrit, his analysis of Ramakrishna and the saint’s purported homosexuality knows no bounds.  Kripal’s central thesis is summarized in his own words as follows:

Ramakrishna was a conflicted, unwilling, homoerotic Tantrika [xiv]… Tantra’s heterosexual assumptions seriously violated the structure of his own homosexual desires. His female Tantric guru and temple boss may have forced themselves … on the saint… but Ramakrishna remained… a lover not of sexually aggressive women or even of older men but of young, beautiful boys. [xv][4]

In imagination gone wild, Kripal, referring to Ramakrishna’s meeting with a member of the Naga sect of sanyasins, assumes things without any evidence adds the extra spice to his analysis:

[W]hat it must have been like for Ramakrishna, a homosexually oriented man, to be shut away for days in a small hut with another, stark-naked man. Vedanta instruction or not, it was this man’s nudity, and more especially, his penis, that normally caught Ramakrishna’s attention. How could it not?[5]

Swami Tyagananda, the head of Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, in Boston, USA and the Hindu Chaplain at MIT and Harvard, offered a detailed refutation of Kali’s Child and exposed various flaws in the book.  According to Swami Tyagananda,

Kripal’s conclusions come via faulty translations, a willful distortion and manipulation of sources, combined with a remarkable ignorance of Bengali culture. The derisive, non-scholarly tone with which he discussed Ramakrishna did not help either… Kripal’s ignorance of Bengali culture jumps right off the page. Many of the author’s misrepresentations are due to a simple lack of familiarity with Bengali attitudes and customs… [Furthermore,] it’s painfully clear that he also has little knowledge of Sanskrit…[6]

In yet another instance of US academics’ ‘free speech’, Paul Courtright, professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University psychoanalyzed Hindu deities, including Lord Ganesha.  In his book, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, Courtright is particularly crass towards Lord Ganesha.

Like the eunuch, Ganesa has the power to bless and curse; that is, to place and remove obstacles. Although there seem to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesa explicitly performs oral sex [Emphasis Added], 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.[7]

Interestingly, in the above analysis, Courtright is that he even acknowledges that there is no textual or folk evidence of such behavior by Lord Ganesha!  Yet, he concludes that Lord Ganesha’s love for sweets has something to do with a desire for oral sex!  Any Hindu, no matter how devout or not, will see this as a clearly biased view brazenly inserted by the author.

Courtright analyzes Ganesha’s trunk as follows: “…The elephant trunk, which perpetually hangs limp, and broken tusk are reminiscent of Siva’s own phallic character, but as these phallic analogs are either excessive or in the wrong place, they pose no threat to Siva’s power and his erotic claims on Parvati.”[8]

Thus, throughout his book, Courtright misuses various tools of analysis based on folk tales and Hindu texts to create dubious theories about Lord Ganesha and his characteristics.

Such analyses run across the gamut of books and articles published by these and other scholars.  And, disturbingly enough, these scholars do not have appropriate knowledge of Sanskrit or native languages such as Bengali.  Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard has called out Wendy Doniger on her improper translations of Sanskrit.[9]

Why doesn’t FOIL, who claims to stand for the ideals of pluralism and for South Asians in general, say anything about such blatant bias?  Does it consider all evidence and refutations provided by people like Swami Tyagananda and others “a dogma of Hindu fundamentalism”?  Perhaps FOIL, through its own tainted lenses, agrees with such demonization of Hinduism and considers Hinduism inherently evil.


[1] Ra Ravishankar and Shefali Chandra, “Brahmanizing the Diaspora”, Ghadar: a publication of the forum of inqualabi leftists, Volume 7: June 2004, http://ghadar.insaf.net/June2004/MainPages/Editorial2.htm, accessed June 22, 2011

[2] Rajiv Malhotra, “RISA Lila – 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome”, September 6, 2002, http://rajivmalhotra.sulekha.com/blog/post/2002/09/risa-lila-1-wendy-s-child-syndrome.htm,  accessed June 22, 2011

[3] Vishal Agarwal and Kalavai Venkat, “When the Cigar becomes a Phallus: A Review of Paul Courtright’s ‘Ganesa, Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings’ (Oxford University Press, 1985) Part I and II – The Text”, July 7, 2004, http://vishalagarwal.voiceofdharma.com/articles/devis/cigar.htm, accessed June 22, 2011

[4] Malhotra, Ibid.[2]

[5] Malhotra, Ibid.[2]

[6] Malhotra, Ibid.[2]

[7] Malhotra, Ibid.[2]

[8] Agarwal and Venkat, Ibid.[3]

[9] Malhotra, Ibid.[2]

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