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RISA Lila – 2 – Limp Scholarship And Demonology

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The growing Indian Diaspora is gradually learning how its heritage has been both portrayed and mis-portrayed in the American education system, and about the urgency to engage the system along the same lines as is already being done by other American minorities, such as Jews, Muslims, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, African-Americans, Hispanics and Native-Americans.

This engagement requires the members of the Diaspora to be equal participants at the discussion tables where Indian traditions are the topic – including schools, colleges, museums, media, political think tanks and corporate policy meetings. However, getting such a seat involves a complex process of negotiation, because the incumbents who are entrenched in the institutions often see any power-sharing as a dilution of their authority.

Dating back to the earliest occupation of India by the British, academic scholarship has often studied and depicted India and its religious and cultural traditions as consisting of the exotic cultures of distant and primitive peoples. For generations, these views went unchallenged. Although more recently, a number of educated Indians, as well as contemporary American scholars, have sought to stimulate a rethinking of this approach and bring into the scholarly dialogue an expanding knowledge and awareness of the traditions, a significant portion of the scholarly community continues to adhere to and promote myopic and outdated views.

Moreover, such scholarship sadly fails to acknowledge that the adherents of these traditions are not primitive foreigners, but they are increasingly one’s Indian-American neighbors, doctors, classmates and friends. Furthermore, it fails to recognize that these traditions are finding adherents among a significant number of Americans and other Westerners who find them compelling and important. This increasing presence and participation of Indians and Indian culture in American society not only provides new and valuable resources for scholarly research understanding, but it also demands that scholars become more aware of and sensitive to the traditions and their followers.

The events described below illustrate how the Diaspora is disadvantaged in its attempt to enter the negotiation process with the Western academic structure. Many Diaspora leaders have opted not to articulate their indigenous viewpoint (many, no doubt, never had a native Indian viewpoint in the first place, having been raised in a Eurocentric education system). Several spiritual leaders remain cocooned within the security of their introverted spiritual groups, and lack the required skills for successful negotiation in the global context on behalf of their cultural identity. Therefore, it is challenging to find knowledgeable individuals who are committed to a fair and balanced approach to tradition, and are willing to stick their necks out amidst a hostile environment, whereas it is not hard to find atheist, Marxist Indians in academia today, who are happy to trash Indian traditions.

This leadership vacuum has spawned a plethora of self-appointed activists, who often lack the sophistication to engage the systems effectively. Nonetheless, this may be a part of the cross-cultural learning process.

This dilemma in cultural discourse about Indian Traditions in the academy may be illustrated by the following fast-moving events which occurred recently. This essay is structured as listed below:

I. Petition against the “Limp Phallus” depiction of Ganesha.
II. Dialog with Paul Courtright.
III. Critique of the Petition.
IV. Threats and attempts to stop them.
V. Another RISA Lila begins.
VI. In India: Motilal Banarsidas withdraws the book.
VII. “Good boycotts” and “Evil boycotts”
VIII. “Good against Evil” witch-hunts begin
IX. Reality begins to sink in
X. The Myth of RISA
XI. (Re) negotiating our place in globalization
XII. Letter from a 14-year old Indian-American schoolgirl

I. Petition against the “Limp Phallus” depiction of Ganesha

On October 6th 2003, I received an email that was mass-distributed, asking people to sign an on-line petition. It was the first time I had read the petition, and had had no prior interaction with its author. The petition web page read:


Against the Book insulting Lord Ganesha and Hinduism

To: President James W. Wagner of Emory University, Governor Sunny Perdue of Georgia, President George W Bush of U.S.A, Prime Minister Atal B. Vajpayee of India, Members of India’s Parliament, Members US-India Congressional Caucus, and US Attorney General, Ashcroft.

There is a Book titled: “Ganesa – Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings” by Professor Paul Courtright, Department of Religion, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. First Edition in USA published in 1985 by Oxford University Press, Inc. First Indian Edition, Published in 2001 by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd., with a nude cover picture and insulting interpretations directly from the book.

For nude cover picture of the 2001 edition of the book please click here.

Here are some of the author’s vulgar interpretations:

–          “Its (Ganesa’s) trunk is the displaced phallus, a caricature of Siva’s linga. It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid, and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purposes.” (Page 121)

–          “He [Ganesa] remains celibate so as not to compete erotically with his father, a notorious womanizer, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter.” (Page 110)

–          “So Ganesa takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated limp phallus-ascetic and benign- whereas Siva is a “hard” (ur-dhvalinga), erotic and destructive.” (Page121)

–          “Both in his behavior and iconographic form Ganesa resembles in some aspects, the figure of the eunuch…Ganesha is like eunuch guarding the women of the harem.” (Page 111)

–          “Although there seems to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesa explicitly performs oral sex; 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.” (Page 111)

–          “Ganesa’s broken tusk, his guardian’s staff, and displaced head can be interpreted as symbols of castration” (page 111)

–          “Feeding Ganesa copious quantities of modakas, satisfying his oral/erotic desires, also keeps him from becoming genitally erotic like his father.” (Page 113)

–          “The perpetual son desiring to remain close to his mother and having an insatiable appetite for sweets evokes associations of oral eroticism. Denied the possibility of reaching the stage of full genital masculine power by the omnipotent force of the father, the son seeks gratification in some acceptable way.” (Page 113)

There are plenty of other insidious passages in this book aimed at tarnishing not only the image of Ganesha, but Shiva and Parvati as well: “After Shiva has insulted Parvati by calling her Blackie [Kali], she vows to leave him and return to her father’s home and then she stations her other son, Viraka—the one Siva had made—at the door way to spy on her husband’s extramarital amorous exploits.” (Page 105-106).

We believe these are clear-cut examples of hate-crimes inflicted on innocent Hindus who worship Ganesha, Shiva and Parvati.

We the undersigned strongly ask you to take the necessary actions to achieve the following:

1) The author and the publisher(s) to give an unequivocal apology to Hindus.
2) The author expunges the above and other offensive passages and revises the book with clarifications and corrections.
3) Publisher(s) to immediately withdraw this book from circulation and the author to stop use of this book in academics.


The Against the Book insulting Lord Ganesha and Hinduism Petition to
President James W. Wagner of Emory University, Governor Sunny Perdue of Georgia, President George W Bush of U.S.A, Prime Minister Atal B. Vajpayee of India, Members of India’s Parliament, Members US-India Congressional Caucus, and US Attorney General, Ashcroft. was created by Hindu Students’ Council – University of Louisiana, Lafayette and written by Devendra Potnis, President HSC-ULL.


II. Dialog with Paul Courtright

On October 28th, I received a one-line email from Paul Courtright which I read to mean that he was falsely accusing me of generating the petition. My instant response was to set the record straight on who started what. I replied:

Dear Paul, First of all, YOU started this – when you wrote, you started a dialog with the Hindus, even though at that time it might have seemed liked a monolog. Please note that freedom of speech works both ways nowadays, as sustaining an asymmetry of power/privilege is no longer as easy as it once was…But first you must stop the “blame” habit yourself. Think of this as the native informants talking back, using the age of interactivity as in so many other fields. You could also consider ENGAGING your opponents and taking your chances – Jimmy Carter did that on the footsteps outside a building when critics attacked him live before the media. Many pundits predicted that it would turn out to be a fatal mistake of his political career, but he won. I am no expert or public relations advisor and you know best what to do. Personally, I don’t support banning books in print, but I do feel that controversial issues must be debated in a balanced way in the open. In fact, my proposal to Kripal has always been that he should include an unedited rejoinder by Swami Tyagananda as a final chapter of his book, so as to balance out the perspectives. He decided against it, saying that it was not possible in academia. But Francis Clooney’s book, “Hindu God, Christian God,” took my advice and has a final chapter by Paramil. Good for Francis! So you might have your opponents select a Ganesha scholar-practitioner to write a rejoinder in your book, and start a new chapter in “interactive” scholarship.


In his reply to this, Courtright seemed interested to move beyond the blame game, but also insisted that my writings had inspired others. He charged that “my quotes” from his book on Ganesha had “taken on a life of their own.”

I wrote back: “Regarding your book, those are not “my” quotes. Nor was I the first to point them out…If you feel there is a solid scholarly basis, then why be afraid of criticism? Why not give your theory as a rejoinder – write an article on Sulekha – and let the chips fall where they may.”

III. Critique of the Petition

Meanwhile, on reading the petition – which I chose not to sign – I critiqued both sides, trying to raise the level of abstraction in the discourse. I sent the following critique in an email to many persons in the Diaspora and in academic Hinduism Studies:[1]

I disagree with the petitioners’ stance that the issue is about “feelings” being hurt – such a petition can and is dismissed easily as being irrelevant to objective scholarship. The petition is facile in its lack of critical analysis.  

However, my problem with many scholars is entirely different: It is about their works’ lack of authenticity and objectivity – a charge that they are not responding to, because they prefer to construct a false purva-paksha that is easier for them to deal with.

  The issue of non-authenticity takes us deep into questioning the “critical theories” that are the very foundation of liberal arts. I want PROOF that these “theories” are valid and especially in the Indian context. Just because they are widely quoted does not make them valid scientifically, as popularity simple means that they have the power of distribution channels on their side – which comes with money and institutional control. So the burden of proof of the validity of the “theories” should be on the shoulders of those who wish to use them. Nobody in Religious Studies to the best of my knowledge has proven these “theories,” and, instead, they merely quote others who quote others. Its all about having established a brand name for oneself, or learning to use someone else’s...It is this shallowness and lack of scientific objectivity that is the crux of my criticism and not “feelings” – but these scholars have not even acknowledge the true nature of the complaint, which is disingenuous on their part.  

Freudianism, as a theory for such purposes, has long been rejected by psychology departments in the west, but it has become the “export” product to mis-educate those third worlders who are in awe of the west. Roland and others have gone far to explain, based on their empirical data, that such “theories” do not work in explaining Indian culture.  

In the same manner, I wish to openly challenge much of postmodernism, western feminism, and many other many sociological and anthropological constructs – in fact, Wendy’s entire “tool-box.”

  The concept of nation state is being applied based on the west as the gold standard, and others are being rated based on how “western” they are – the irony is that globalization is moving beyond this Eurocentric nation state criteria, closer to the Indian Ocean open economy prior to colonialism closing it. Christianity is being used as the basis to define what a “religion” should be and how it is to be studied. Feminism is being defined based on western ideas of womanhood – I can cite many criticisms against this by African and Asian women scholars.  

Here is what one popular level introduction to “critical theory” has to say: “It is an “alternative metaphysics” promoting a particular world view, and, at least implicitly, a particular politics…We cannot assume that any criticism is a “value-free” activity…Being critical is being political: it represents an intervention…The cultural analyst can pick or mix from the catalog of theories to put together synthetic models for whatever the task may happen to be.”  

Essentially, the student is taught to be able to quote well and apply the set of theories, simply assuming that they are some sort of canon: “The successful student in higher education reaches theoretically-informed conclusions in essays and exams, and can show precisely how the theory informed those conclusions.” In other words, these “theories” have become like absolute and ultimate authorities – which makes them akin to the authority of the Vedas, their originators akin to the Vedic rishis, and the liberal arts educators like English language based brahmins.  

So I request that the discourse be upgraded by both sides – which Courtright should support – to the meta-level discussion of “theories” in circulation these days, including Wendy’s theories of “myths” as agents that seem to deny Indians’ individual agency.

  Many RISA scholars have defended this state of scholarship by telling me that “of course, all theories are relative and not scientific,” as if that solves the problem. Subjectivity and relativism merely compels us to take the inquiry further: this is where the role of power in distribution channels/ control, and hence in the adoption of “standard theories” or lenses becomes important. The asymmetry of power becomes a relevant topic for discussion – but Religious Studies avoids it. No longer can one claim emic/etic irrelevance, because the power asymmetry in the case of (neo) colonized religions determines who is licensed to say what using which lens – and to reproduce more of their own kind as graduate students who depend on them.  

So far I have addressed two aspects: the relativeness of the theories in style, and the role of power asymmetry we find today. There are other issues as well: (1) Why has the academy used its gate-keeping role to consistently abuse any and all critics of its ways, and what does this say about its claims of objectivity? Here I can supply lots of written abuses against those who raise such matters, and many more verbal anecdotes. (2) Why have academic scholars been one-sided in their condemnations of human rights violations, citing academic neutrality when they choose to look the other way, but getting deeply engaged when it’s politically expedient? The list goes on…

  The Hinduism Unit of AAR has a unique opportunity to examine such meta-level issues, and to be open about allowing participation – which means not using asymmetric power to block off dissent as “unqualified.” If there is any forum that wishes to seriously debate at the meta-level, please do let me know and I would be delighted to participate.

  I hope to have explained how the petition does a disservice to serious dialog by downgrading the issue into “feelings,” while masking the more serious problems of methodology.

There were many supportive responses to my critique, some of which are summarized next.

Prof. Stuart Sovatsky wrote: [2] Rajiv – Thanks for putting out your response to the Courtright petition — also, M Foucault seem to be a primary ally in critiquing the “Power-Knowledge” game of academia. In reference to tantra and its distortion by psychoanalysis, his concept of ars erotica is the only Western lens (I know of) that is capable of understanding the former while critiquing the latter. Thus, he is one example, I think, of what you are looking for, from Western academia.” 

Prof. Antonio de Nicolas wrote:[3] Your exchange on the issue of the book is exemplar and leaving the lesser issue (feelings) you have managed to force the focus on the real (RISA) issue: incompetence and dissemination of trivialities and dis-information about Indic studies.”

Dr. Cleo Kearns wrote:[4]“The outrage some Hindus feel about this book is similar to (though not identical with, due to the unequal political context) the outrage felt by many Christians in this country about the treatment of Christianity in the academy (and in the arts as well). In saying this I am not trying to equate the two situations, because the power relations are very different, but merely to draw what I hope will be a warning parallel. The result here has been a deep split between the popular consciousness and the intelligentsia – the so-called “culture wars.” This rift in our society has been and is very dangerous. The only way to resolve this is by open, educated and critical debate of the kind you have been trying to foster. This debate, while always civil and respectful of good form, should involve both academics and non-academics, those who speak from within and those who speak from without the traditions involved, and informed minds should not in my opinion hesitate to exert leadership here as you have done.”

Francis Clooney responded that he found my email “stimulating as usual” and explained that academics were individualistic in their work, and simply ignored others’ works when they disagreed, and rarely argued. But Clooney might want to reconsider his views on the nature of scholars after reading the recent demonizing by RISA on this matter.

Alex Alexander wrote: [5]“I agree with you that this petition lacks much of the sophistication that is needed in pursuing an item of this kind. However, I do believe that the concerns that are being voiced by people on issues like these ought to be heard by leaders who have the responsibility to both oversee academic standards and also preserve civility among communities that practice different faiths.”

Dr. Susantha Goonatilake, a Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar, wrote:[6]

I broadly agree with what Rajiv is saying. The study fields that he mentions started about 25 years ago as a response to western hegemonic thought. But they were picked up as mechanical tools by others to do its opposite on S Asia. Post colonial studies became pro colonial studies. Feminism, whose aim was to understand what white males left out, became [about] repeating what white females said. So without a Huntington you have civilizational ideologues for the west.

What you are saying about Indic Hindu studies is worse in Buddhist studies. Buddhist studies in the 19th & 20th c. were an attempt to grasp what Buddhism was. It was a goof effort. During the last 25 years there has been an anthropological turn in Buddhist studies and instead of careful scholarship one has gross inventions and partial truths that do not meet basic criteria of scholarship or test.

Nobody messes up like this with China, (I have seen Western scholars kowtowing there), Japan or even S. E. Asia. (I am writing this from Cambodia.)

But we have to see this in broad geo political terms. In 25 years’ time India – in spite of numerous problems – will probably be the number 3 or 4 economic power in the world. With this clout it can dictate the terms of scholarship and [remedy] its anti Indic biases. I think one should let the Indic studies community know this inevitability.

Prof. Mandeep Singh of Hofstra University replied to my critique with just one phrase, “Brilliant thought.[7]

But many others wrote back defending the petition, and opposing my criticism of it. Chitra posted her very impressive rejoinder to my critique on the Abhinavgupta list:[8]

…the drafters of this petition are equally entitled to express their deep outrage over the book. To you, the issue is not about “feelings” being hurt; but to them, at the level they operate, it is…I hope she [Laurie Patton] realizes that this petition should be read purely as a barometer of collective sentiment, not as an incitement to inflict harm.

There appears to be a perception that “progressive and secular” Hindus ought to be able to roll over and take anything that is written about their religious traditions. They should be “objective” about people who turn some of their most sacred iconography into an object of obscene, practically derisive interpretation. Those who stand up and protest are either ignored as either excessively “emotional;” or, if their language turns extreme, are eyed warily as recidivist fanatics.

…Do representatives of all religious traditions in the West have to try so hard to maintain the right tone, to calibrate their approach to such an extent, in order get a proper hearing? Do they take a tuning fork to their arguments to ensure that it resonates with the right “objective” frequency if they believe they have experienced an opprobrious assault either to their belief systems, their community, or their culture?…I never cease to be amazed at the double standards that permeate the Western perspective…

Professor Courtright…writes as an academician with the expectation of influencing young minds in his classroom and beyond. He writes about the most widely beloved and central deity in the Hindu religious tradition. I do think it is uncivilized and deplorable to level threats of physical harm to anyone on the basis of any level of disagreement. However, it is necessary that Prof. Courtright and other luminaries at Emory University understand what they are taking on, and be prepared and open at the very least to face fierce opposition and spirited debate over his book.

In summary, I believe that double standards in the treatment of faiths exist for a number of reasons and that fear of repRISAl is only one of them…It is truly energizing to know that people such as yourself continue to push for the move from double standards to higher standards of academic accountability. But this effort is in no way diluted by diverse voices. Let them be heard.

One energized Hindutva leader was very blunt about conveying to me the petitioners’ anger against my critique. He confirmed his telephonic complaint in writing, calling my position “trifle impolitic,” “poor PR,”and that he was “turned off” by it. He referred to the “depth of resentment that this has generated” amongst Hindus against me, which, he wrote, was “not a happy state of affairs” for me.

IV. Threats and attempts to stop them

Meanwhile, the petition was gaining momentum and had over 4,000 signatures in a few days. However, the end of the petition started after some comments posted on it started to turn “threatening”, thereby bothering many persons, including myself. This triggered a new series of events in which Courtright’s academic supporters rightly responded, but did so, unfortunately, by repositioning themselves as “victims”.

Regulations required Emory University to report the matter to appropriate authorities. A prominent scholar in Hinduism Studies made a well-meaning private request to me, to help reduce the tension:[9] “Rajiv,” she wrote, “I urge you to contact the petitioners and offer your opinion that their behavior is unwarranted, and that their petition lacks credibility. It would also be helpful to remind them that it is ‘never’ acceptable to threaten someone physical harm for what they have expressed ‘or’ to continue to circulate a petition containing such threats. Never.”

My offer to facilitate a dialog was emailed to her on the same day. Her response was quick: “Thanks. The generators of the petition should also consider the legality of what they are doing when they circulate documents that contain direct threats against an individual. I could be wrong, but I think it is illegal to directly threaten someone’s life, as some of the signatories have done – ? Someone circulating those threats might be opening themselves up to prosecution under the law.”

Separately, in response to my critique, another senior colleague of Prof. Courtright replied privately:[10]“There are many death threats on the petition. That is my concern right now,” she wrote. She requested my help by speaking out to prevent any further threats, calling the petition “A document of hate” and adding that “Hinduism is not well represented at all.” She requested that we have a telephone conversation.

I offered to try and diffuse the situation concerning abusive comments on the petition, and also presented my meta-level analysis of the larger dialog issue. In my email to her, I wrote:[11] “Please note that I have tried many times to set up AAR-Diaspora dialog mechanisms but there has been no reciprocity. All I get back is more insults…My own interest in is theory and methods as it gets applied to Indic traditions. Regarding death threats, you must find out who made these and get them to stop. But at the same time, I would advise against blowing things out of proportion, as “victimhood” has been tried many times before but does not deal with issues. It’s best to be balanced and not lose perspective.”

She wrote back:[12] “Re victims: I hate victim stuff. I am not playing victim re the death threats. I am simply saying that 20+ statements about Paul’s being hanged, burned, and shot with his address publicized on the same petition is a serious issue, and it undermines the credibility of ALL the signers.”Later, she also wrote: “I will send you via snail mail the threatening ones we have collected to date. happy reading. Rajiv, I am grateful for the conversation.””

A third prominent Western scholar of Hinduism wrote off-line:[13] “I think it’s great you are making the effort to elevate the discourse.” In another email, she wrote that the petition was in her opinion “appropriately interpreted as a cyber attack.[14] But later she also accepted my thesis that scholars must not remain so aloof from the Diaspora, and wrote: “I completely agree with you, Rajiv, that better means of communication need to be put in place[15].

On Friday, October 31, I had a conversation with someone associated with the petitioners, and requested that unless they could delete all any abusive comments and prevent new ones, they should remove the petition completely. By Monday, November 3rd, the petition was off the air.

Meanwhile, the academic outcry from Emory against the petition had reached scholars around the world. I received various requests for my intervention, such as the following one from Prof. Robert Thurman:[16]

I received distressing news that Paul Courtright is receiving all manner of over-the-top death threats and would-be fatwas from outraged Hindus for publishing a picture of some statue of Ganesha in the nude! What is the egroup? This is really unfortunate, since it is so baseless and immoderate and gives all the scholars a perfect excuse for their u-turnings and not to consider seriously the intellectual critiques of their biases. If there is anything you can do to use your clout as a major spokesperson to try to quell this explosion of verbal violence, it would be very positive in giving you better leverage to press your reasoned case against the Freudianisms and missionary types of misrepresentations. Please, make a strong statement against such harsh and self-defeating threats, merely giving Hinduism a bad name. It is a perfect opportunity for you to come to the side of our dialoguers and re-energize the transformation you have worked so hard to effect.

While criticizing the “threatening” comments on the petition, I was at the same time equally critical of the academic scholars for refusing to open up the channels for honest dialogue. In a private email to some Western scholars who appeared interested in dialogue, I wrote:[17]

The Diaspora is now highly aware of AAR/RISA, suspicious, and getting mobilized rapidly. They are challenging at fund raisers, and their kids are getting bolder about raising their hands to question the items selected for depiction in a one-sided manner…

If left to itself, things will deteriorate, and there may well be someone who will file a lawsuit on hate speech or something similar. This must be avoided by proactive positive thinking. It would take leadership skills replacing career politics as the driver…

The Diaspora activists are not one or even a small number of groups. In classical Indian fashion, it is highly decentralized and there are more such self-styled activists popping up all the time…

I have made the same offer many times before to the academy: I am available to participate in win-win deals that consider the views of all sides.

I have repeatedly clarified that the intellectual debates I seek would expand the discourse rather than collapse it – i.e., my position would have exactly the opposite effect than censorship.

For instance, my comment to Sunthar explained the problem in terms of my U-Turn Theory, and was posted by him at his Abhinavgupta egroup:[18]

The issue is not sexuality (which Indic traditions have more than the western counterparts), but language and framework. Freudian western language brings with it value judgments, lenses that are not necessarily authentic to the Indic culture, and certainly a privileging of the gatekeepers in charge of those systems, i.e. the western(ized) English-language “brahmins.” Furthermore, the careless mapping to the dominant culture’s language/framework causes the native systems to atrophy, which, in turn, further exacerbates the appropriation.

In summary: I was unhappy about the petition’s sole emphasis on “feelings” and also about the abusive comments. At the scholars’ requests, I engaged in private efforts to try to diffuse the “threatening” situation, working simultaneously with both sides. At the same time, I have been forthright about severely criticizing the methodologies of RISA scholarship, and have made numerous but unsuccessful attempts to get the academy to engage in serious dialogue on these issues.

However, I got attacked from both sides, as will become clear below.

V. Another RISA Lila begins

Meanwhile, on the RISA-list, the official discussion list for academic scholars of Religion in South Asia, a major controversy over the petition was taking shape. Among the contributors to that controversy were many powerful scholars whose institutional positions enable them to shape the direction of the academic field. Among the bothersome aspects of this controversy were the way in which invidious and prejudicial statements and personal attacks were made with impunity, establishing a level of tolerance for ad hominems and insults that calls into question the quality of the list and its moderators.

Prof. Antonio De Nicolas posted the following condemnation of Courtright’s book on RISA-list (the official discussion list for academic scholars of Religions in South Asia), and it sparked off a major controversy:[19]

Dear friends,

It is now obvious that we have a revolution of sensitivities on our hands, and the correction of such a distempered situation is now in the court of Indic studies scholars and the Universities we serve. Are we as scholars commanded by the freedoms and privileges of our professional degrees entitled to stand the ground of silence in the case of Dr. Paul Courtright and his thesis on Ganesha, or is it our obligation as such scholars to call into question the scholarship of Dr. Paul Courtright and demand a corrective of some kind?

In more veridical terms, did Dr. Courtright act, in writing his book on Ganesha with the discipline and scholarship demanded of him by his degree or did he act irresponsibly and unscholarly in such a manner that both his freedom of speech and his freedom to teach are both in jeopardy?

Point number one: The first responsibility of a scholar in describing, writing, speaking, 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. If not, then the scholar is using those cultures in name only and his goal is their destruction, if not in intention at least in fact. “The flaccid phallus of Ganesha” is an invention of the author when this is not the only depiction of Ganesha, since He appears in other statues with large erection.

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.

In the case of Lord Ganesha and Hindus the case is even more dramatic and irresponsible, or demands even more responsibility than in other cases. Lord Ganesha is considered a God my millions of Hindus. We Westerners may think whatever we want about Indic gods, but it is the case that in the Indic classical texts gods are “intelligence centers,” pilot brains to give light to our lives and decisions. Who is the Western Scholar that can use his freedom of speech (but not his responsibility to know better) in order to destroy, dethrone, or laugh at a God made naked for that purpose or consequence? And which is the Institution of learning that will condone such behavior from one that has promised, by accepting his degree, to strive to continue to impart knowledge, not falsehood, or opinions. Would Dr. Courtright like to open a door to the enemies, or outsiders, of Christianity to do the same with the Bible, for example? Would he or others find it offensive if a Hindu scholar with full credentials and knowledge described the Creation myth of the Bible as an absurd and gross sexual representation? For one thing Freud would not be needed. The Bible is very explicit. The creation myth (history) says very clearly that the Creator created the world by ejecting his semen (ruh= pron.ruah) and mingling it with the waters. In other words, the creator created through masturbation. And if you stretch the story all the way to Jesus and follow the patrilineal lines given to him turns out that Yahweh is his father. Can you be more gross? And would any Ph.D. in Religion be able to answer this attack?

You see, a Pandora’s box is let open to inflict enormous pain on believers. Why not see the same pain on Hindus when their gods are attacked? We are talking about interpretations not realities!!! All stories about gods are bad stories.

I think I am making my points clearly. Emory University and the AAR should investigate this and similar cases and keep an investigating body available to make sure this does not happen again. And also make sure that the present crisis is immediately stopped from spreading with a large apology for such irresponsible behavior.

One of the first responses on RISA-l was from Narasingha Sil:[20]

Professor Courtright’s depiction of Ganesha reflects his idealization of a particular state of the male organ and we need not exercise ourselves unnecessarily on Ganesha’s proboscis seen as a limp phallus.  I have seen (so have many others) limp phallus of most of the male nude statuary sculpted by the Greeks and even by the Renaissance Italians. Nobody has interpreted the statue of a young David or a muscular Adam (the perpetrator of the “Adamic” sin!) with a small and limp phallus in Florence or in the Sistine Chapel as something to be excited or exercised about. Let Ganesha have his phallus limp when he is not shown as gawking at a divine female. If Courtright intends to insinuate impotence of Ganesha (which I sincerely doubt he does), then that may be an instance of his personal anxiety about a male organ to be ever up and ready for action. 

The interesting and intriguing point to underscore here is that Ganesha being a “pagan” god with juicy legends about his origin, is an object of curiosity to those who really have no stake in stuff Hindu. I, for one, would neither castigate Courtright for his disappointment with or disapproval of the state of Ganesha’s trunk (or phallus) nor applaud the professor’s critics, but I really give a damn to the ‘Sidhdhidata’s’ trunk with the conviction that he being a Hindu god and especially related to his ethyphallic father Shiva, would surely rise to the occasion with his virility at the appropriate time.

William Harman then started the anti-Nicolas and pro-Courtright movement on RISA-l:[21]

De Nicolas has assumed that he and he alone knows the Truth about Ganesh and about how the culture that reveres Ganesh thinks. In fact, I know many Indians who much appreciated Courtright’s meticulous scholarship, and who felt that it represented an affectionate, provocative, and exploratory study into the nature of this wonderfully protean Hindu deity.

J. O. Perry – a retired professor with no religious studies background who thrives on the typical Marxist-Postmodernist “literary theories” – chimed in against Indians, in a predictable fashion:[22] “Freudian thinking has, after all, penetrated even the apparently dim and “different” {Other? unable to be scholarly, only sensitive to slight} minds of scholars in India.” Perry did not bother to substantiate why the scholarly minds in India were judged “dim” or “slight”. His RISA peers did not raise objections: When Indians are belittled in this elitist forum, it has become traditional for others to remain quiet. More insidious examples will be given later.

But Ramdas Lamb broke ranks with his cohorts and saw things as a practicing American Hindu:[23]

I cannot help but believe that the vast majority of Hindus would be appalled at such an approach, which seems to say far more about the writer and his focus than about the way Ganesha has been historically understood by Hindus. If the text was simply meant to take a Freudian approach to Ganesha, with the inevitable outcome of such tact, then, maybe, it was successful. However, if it was meant to provide good historical scholarship on Ganesha, then I do not see where such depictions accomplish that, unless they have been integral in the development and understanding of Ganesha within the Hindu tradition. Is it wrong to suggest scholarly understanding should take historical reality into consideration? While I am sure that there are currently, and may have long been, some Indians who may view Ganesha in that way, but when have such views been characteristic of Hindu thinking with respect to Ganesha? Just because we are scholars, does that mean we can say and write whatever we wish, irrespective of its accuracy or impact?

Such flare-ups present opportunities for otherwise unnoticed scholars to make sensational statements – in exchange for brownie points to help their career politics. Stephen Brown deserves a nomination in this category, as he displayed his ability to quote on “etic” and “emic” jargon, even though nobody pointed out that he had missed the point. For instance, he failed to address whether etic (objective-outsider) intellectual freedom might impinge upon emic (insider-practitioner) freedom, given the asymmetry of power held by the etic side, and his peers failed to explore ways to balance both kinds of freedom. (While beyond the scope of this discussion, it is worth pointing out that sexual harassment laws and practice have a concept called “hostile environment,” and RISA should evaluate whether certain academic practices in religious studies would qualify, by analogy, as hostile with respect to cultural/identity harassment.)

One scholar after another criticized Hindus for making the petition, while showering praise upon their own academic cohorts.

Gene Thursby explained that Sikhs had raised similar objections in the past:[24]The current flap itself mirrors earlier ones. For instance the complaint a decade ago that Harjot Oberoi ought not occupy a “community” chair of Sikh Studies because his book The Construction of Religious Boundaries represented Sikh history inaccurately and inappropriately. Ironic in the context of the current flap since in a way Oberoi had done too much historical study and it is claimed that Courtright has done too little.”

Lance Nelson tried to legitimize the naked Ganesha cover picture by asking how it differed from naked pictures of baby Krishna that were part of the tradition. Herman Tull furthered Nelson’s theory, dropping Edmund Leach’s name, as if merely citing prior Western interpreters wins the day. Joanna Kirkpatrick offered further ‘proof’. She exclaimed that Carstairs work on Rajputs and Doniger’s work in general were based on Freudianizing, and that, therefore, de Nicolas’ complaint indicated ignorance. It goes to show that mere repetition of a theory by credible Western scholars is grounds for legitimacy and construction of “truths.” However, everyone simply ignored Swami Tyagananda’s post: “…a naked Ganesha is certainly not a “tradition” the way a naked baby Krishna is part of the popular culture expressed through songs, pictures and images.”

Deepak Sarma, who got his Ph.D. under Wendy Doniger, and is the moderator of the RISA-l discussion, chastised Antonio De Nicolas for supporting the petition and sent him warnings to stop further posts that criticized RISA members. But Gene Thursby wrote off-line to support de Nicolas’ right to free speech, which Sarma was censoring, stating that de Nicolas’ post was of far more importance than many other items that RISA-l was routinely being used for. He felt that RISA-l needed more posts similar to de Nicolas’. De Nicolas complained about being censored and publicly posted:[25] RISA Members…I was told to shut upand/or be approved by the RISA administration…”

Kathleen M. Erndl established some principles of good behavior:[26] “Whatever the merits or demerits of certain types of analysis and interpretation may be, they ought to be debated in an informed, scholarly (and dare I suggest) civil manner.” However, many of RISA her colleagues have failed to apply these principles: The “civil” manner advocated was violated in the Demonology described below, without receiving any protest from her, as “civil” conduct was suspended to facilitate attacks against the Diaspora and those scholars who criticized RISA.

VI. Meanwhile, in India…

In large newspaper advertisements across India, Motilal Banarsidas, Courtright’s publisher, announced that they were withdrawing his book on Ganesha. I will first quote the news item and then comment on the way in which the resulting debate broke rules of academic due process in a new way:

Publishers apologise for ‘offending’ Ganesha picture 
[Monday, November 3 2003 23:11 Hrs (IST)]
New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Indological Publishers and Distributors, who had published a book containing an “offending” picture of Lord Ganesha, today (November 3) offered their apologies and announced withdrawal of all the copies from the market. Motilal Banarsidass Indological Publishers and Distributors said they were “deeply hurt” to note that the book ‘Ganesh: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings’ which was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1985 has “appeared to be offensive to a section of beloved readers”.

“Respecting the sentiments of the culturally conscious scholars, the publisher and distributor have withdrawn the circulation of the book from the market,” a press release said.

It said the publisher and the distributor also offered apologies to the readers.

“The reason that we undertook the publication and distribution of the book is because we thought that the book, originally published by Oxford University Press with no adverse response and reviews, deserved a wider circulation in a relatively lower price for the benefit of the academic world,” it said.


VII. “Good boycotts” and “Evil boycotts”

The resulting controversy and attempt to start a boycott of Motilal Banarsidas led to self-righteous defenses of freedom of speech for the academics, and also the demonizing of the “outsiders.” This demonizing was directed at specific individuals and also against a commercial publisher exercising its commercial freedom. The contradiction that has escaped the attention of many RISA scholars’ posts is this: They champion the freedom of those who are presumed to be among of the “Good” and the chosen “us”, while lobbying in the fiercest manner against the freedom of “others” who are declared as “Evil”.

Besides demonizing some individuals, including myself, these scholars turned their anger against Motilal Banarsidas like a pack of wolves, denying Motilal Banarsidas its freedom to make commercial decisions.

In an open letter to Motilal Banarsidas, Patrick Olivelle, one of the most powerful Sanskrit scholars in the world of Western academics, hinted at boycotting Motilal:[27] This is a book [i.e. Courtright’s book] that won the 1985 prize of the Committee on the History of Religions of the American Council of Learned Societies, the most prestigious scholarly organization of America, an organization to which almost all scholarly associations of America belong…I think your reputation as a serious publisher of scholarly books is being undermined by withdrawing a good scholarly book from circulation for non-academic reasons. I will find it difficult to recommend you to my colleagues as a venue where they may publish their works.” One academic scholar requesting anonymity wrote privately to me: “Doesn’t the insinuating, blackmailing tone of this just set your teeth on edge?”

Prof. Kathleen Erndl gave her colleague a ‘shabash’:[28] “I’m happy to see RISA members rallying to support our colleague, whether we agree with every word or not.” Closing ranks is typical of many RISA members, contradicting its claim of objectivity and individuality. Amod Lele, a Ph.D. student at Harvard, lacking any thesis of his own, continued his predictable role as bandwagon follower and sepoy-in-training.

It was Prof. Cynthia Humes who openly rallied the RISA troops to charge against Motilal, on November 3rd:“I suggest that scholars should either lobby Motilal Banarsidass to reverse this decision, or to beginboycotting Motilal Banarsidass, or both. Paul Courtright’s book was peer-reviewed. If we allow ourselves to be censored, then there is no point to the academic enterprise. Friends, this is something to take a stand about.”

And she continued in another post on the same day, functioning as the chief strategist on boycotting Motilal Banarsidas: “If I were he [i.e. Courtright], I would get some of those famous Emory lawyers on the case and sue both the company [i.e. Motilal] as well as Jain individually. I would take that book, and with all of its newfound interest, find a reputable publisher and come out with a new foreword detailing the story, excoriating the press linking them to the petitioners, and publicizing it on the back cover with retorts to choice absurd quotes from the websites. People will come out of the woodwork to buy it, because of the frenzy. It will be adopted in courses, not just for the subject matter, but to reveal the importance of academic freedom. I would then create a website on the controversy, with direct sales of the book offered at the click of a button.”

It is important to bear in mind that the British East India Company first focused on controlling thedistribution channels of trade, and this enabled them to control India’s production as well. The rest, as they say, is history. Likewise, in the field of knowledge dissemination, the academic scholars know the strategic implications of keeping Motilal Banarsidas on a leash controlled by Western interests. Motilal Banarsidas is the only major Indology publisher with global reach and reputation that is controlled by Indians. Therefore, it is important to remind it of who the boss is, and thus also teach other Indians a lesson on the limits to their independence.

Prof. John Hawley further intimidated Motilal Banarsidas by the power vested in him as a member of the dominant culture. His threat was loud and clear: “May I ask for the current status of copyright information on any titles of mine that MLBD [i.e. Motilal Banarsidas] has published? Are AT PLAY WITH KRISHNA and DEVI: GODDESSES OF INDIA still in print? In both cases, other authors/editors are also involved, as are other presses, but once I have consulted with them, I would like to initiate a process that would allow me to withdraw those books from your care, if possible.”

Later, someone composed a spoof on John Hawley, using a pseudonym, “John Yes, Holy,” and it was forwarded by a person claiming to be “Michael Witzel of Harvard” to various Diaspora egroups (not RISA). Michael denied that it was done by him. This spoof, by an anonymous author, deserves a nomination for the most hilarious piece on this controversy. It read as follows:

Mr. Ramesh Jain
Motel Benares Bookstore

Dear Mr. Jain,

I deeply regret your recent decision to discontinue publication of Paul Courtright’s book on the pagan God Ganesha. Employing psychoanalytical methods is an old tradition in the English speaking academia: but how can an unwashed coolie like you know about such things? These methods reveal a great deal about the person doing the analysis, much like a Roshak test. That is another little psycho-babble concept that you don’t know about.

So let me explain it to you. I will speak very slowly for your benefit. Paul Courtright’s limp phallus imagery is clearly derived from his own lack of fertility as a scholar. He tends to see limp phalluses everywhere. In fact, the limp phallus is a good symbol for the state of Indology in general. That is why we are all obsessed with phalluses, limp or otherwise. Where would we be as a field without our little limp phalluses? You have seriously tarnished your good name (in my opinion) by missing such an obvious point. It is our right as scholars to publish anything we like. It is your duty to publish everything we ask you that has been peer reviewed. No real (i.e., European) publisher ever considers the marketability of a book. Am I speaking slowly enough for you?

May I ask for the current status of the books I sent to you to publish because I could not find a real (i.e., European) publisher for them? Are AT PLAY WITH PAUL and WENDY: GODDESS OF INDIA still in print? I know I am striking terror into your heart, by threatening in my devilishly clever and subtle way, to withdraw these books from your care. Take that and add that to your curry!  

Yours sincerely
John Yes, Holy
The One and Only

Feeding the publisher boycott frenzy, Prof. Kathleen M. Erndl continued to explain how her culture’s funding power gave her the ability to control the distribution channels of knowledge:[29] As far as a boycott of MLBD is concerned, my thinking is this: I have spent thousands of dollars on MLBD books over the years. I have a limited amount of money to spend on books, and I am loathe to give my hard-earned money to a publisher who engages in censorship and denial of academic freedom and who has participated in a smear campaign to defame a respected friend, scholar, and colleague. If the decision is reversed, I’ll be happy to return as a customer of MLBD.”

Prof. Cynthia Humes made sure that the frenzy would not die out:[30] “If nothing else, a no-holds-barred academic boycott against Motilal Banarsidass will provide Indian presses with an answer to extremists on why they should not censor peer-reviewed works in the future…RISA, take a stance against efforts to deny academic freedom. Boycott Motilal Banarsidass. Spread the word. Act.”

Prof. Philip Ludgendorf and many others joined the call for boycott on the same day. As the anti-Motilal mayhem picked up steam, Prof. John Grimes suggested burning Motilal’s books:[31] “The yuga known as Kali has just become blacker! By the by, I am curious if those who are considering boycotting Motilal are going to dispose of all their personal copies of Motilal’s books??? Fahrenheit 451anyone?”

Meanwhile, an academic scholar who has been the target of attacks at RISA, and requests anonymity, exposed an important contradiction:[32] “It is amusing that folks at RISA are calling for a boycott of MLBD [i.e. Motilal]. I haven’t heard a word anywhere about boycott of CBS that pulled the movie on Reagan (peer-reviewed etc etc) only yesterday. Neither is the Republican party that carried out this campaign against the movie being called fascist.”

Sunthar Visuvalingam also pointed out a double-standard, by reminding us that in 1990/91 he was informed by Cynthia Humes (co-editor) that SUNY Press had rejected their existing draft simply on the excuse of being too inflammatory on account of its focus on Hindu-Muslim conflict. Sunthar feels that this ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ pressure was without any academic due process. Yet the same kind of decision by Motilal Banarsidas is being condemned. I personally know of several other instances where Western academic presses of considerable reputation have dropped works, not because of any peer review, but because of other marketing considerations.

VIII. “Good against Evil” witch-hunts begin

During the three centuries long witch-hunting across Europe, it was sufficient to accuse someone of being a witch, and then the accused person had the burden to prove his or her innocence. If one were even remotely linked, howsoever indirectly, to any person or organization that had been demonized by the Church, or if one were charged with wearing a symbol or using certain terminology that had been condemned, it was enough to be declared guilty-by-association and burnt at the stake.

As the Ganesha-Courtright controversy unfolded, RISA scholars’ publicly engaged in a series of witch-hunts, that are summarized below, using theories and methods that bear a striking resemblance to the Church’s demonology in the Dark Ages. RISA rules for scholarship and “civil” behavior seemed to have been conveniently suspended to allow this witch-hunting to proceed with impunity.

Zydenbos’ witch-hunting of Belgian scholars:

Prof. S. N. Balagangadhara (“Balu”) and another academic scholar from Belgium became targets of vicious and libelous attacks that clearly violated RISA rules.

Prof. Zydenbos’ guilt-by-association attack had the following logic: He felt “disappointed and troubled” that Balu was listed on an Indian Diaspora yahoo egroup as “an author,” alongside “well-known names,” including a “fellow who campaigns against this [RISA] list as a whole (as well as against academic freedom and freedom of the press, as the present Courtright case has shown)”. Zydenbos did not supply any facts behind these insinuations.

Another “crime” that Zydenbos accused Balu of was that he was referred to as “Balu” on that demonized egroup – a sign of being “close to the Devil” – even though Balu pointed out that many people routinely called him “Balu.”

Zydenbos expressed anger that Balu had been elected to lead the Hinduism Unit at AAR, as if only anti-Hindu scholars should be allowed to control the discourse on Hinduism. Zydenbos went on the record wishing his peers “sagaciousness” as he publicly warned them against Balu’s election.

A second named victim of Zydenbos’ witch-hunting was Jakob De Roover, also in Belgium, whose “crime” was that he had posited that secularism in India was not necessarily the same as elsewhere[33]. Zydenbos concluded from this thesis that De Roover and Balu must have links with anti-Muslim groups in Belgium and elsewhere. De Roover called this allegation “unworthy of any intellectual,” accused Zydenbos of “slander,” and asserted his own right to propose “alternative conceptual solutions” to Indian cultural studies. He challenged the RISA scholars to respond to his thesis using legitimate methods of criticism.

Zydenbos’ witch-hunting case against De Roover relied on the charge that De Roover had posted at least one message on the IndianCivilization yahoo egroup – yet another demonized Diaspora egroup – but De Roover responded that he had not even been a member of that yahoo egroup.

To clear his name of fascism, De Roover had to publicly declare his distance from Satan. He wrote: “Let it be clear that ‘I do not have any connection’ to the fascist political party that is popular in Flanders or to the Sangh Parivar in India. Neither have I ever had contact with any “notorious Indologist” who is associated with these political movements. My argument about secularism in India should be taken at face value.”

The guilt-by-association extended beyond just Balu and De Roover. Zydenbos applied it to the entire university where Balu works, and explained that whatever was posted on the yahoo egroup “helps us hermeneutically to gain an insight into the intentions behind the writings coming out of Ghent.”

Balu was angry that he was being denied his academic freedom by this guilt-by-association. He protested publicly on RISA-:[34] “Zydenbos launches personal attacks on me, on Jakob De Roover and on those coming from the University of Ghent. He tries to make my credentials appear suspect because, heaven forbid, www.bharatvani.org provides a link to an article I wrote and published elsewhere! Koenraad Elst hails from Belgium, I teach at a Belgian University, my article is referenced to by a ‘Hindutva filth factory’ and, voila, he suggests, “perhaps a glance at Bharatvani helps us hermeneutically to gain an insight into the intentions behind the writings coming out of Ghent.”

Balu criticized Zydenbos for engaging in “character assassination,” and publicly declared no links to the Devil: “I would like to formally declare that I am not associated in any way (directly or indirectly) with any political, religious, or social movement in India; I am not nor have I ever been a member of any of the Sangh-Parivar.”

Sarma was also sent a notice from Balu: “Because this is a moderated list, the listserv is liable if someone takes it into his/her head to prosecute for libel.” And he went on to warn: “In any case, it is just about conceivable that my next response to libel and innuendo’s will not be a friendly warning. I hope earnestly that people like Stephen Brown and Zydenbos also realize that they cannot simply go around assassinating the characters and reputations of people with impunity.”

While Sarma had scolded de Nicolas for criticizing Courtright’s scholarship, he did not take Zydenbos to task for these much greater violations. Furthermore, both Balu and Jakob De Roover were warned by Sarma that, if they persisted in carrying on with the “discussion”, their posts would be put on moderation.

Stephen Brown accuses me:

In parallel, there were two simultaneous attacks against me personally. In response, I sent the following off-line email to Deepak Sarma, with copies to several RISA members in order to make sure that this email could not be denied later:

Dear Deepak,

I would like to report to you a violation of your rule that “no personal attacks or flaming will be tolerated on this list.”

Stephen Brown’s post of November 4 (see: http://www.sandiego.edu/theo/RISA-l/archive/msg07273.html ) violates this when he says:

“Rajiv Malhotra, who seems to be behind this attack, has been behind the open attack of several scholars in the past several years. I have personally been witness to the verbally violent interrogation and attack of scholars by individuals acting “on his request” at the past two AAR annual meetings, and have heard by word of mouth of other incidents at other major academic conferences (such as the Tantra conference in Flagstaff, AZ).”

COMPLAINT 1: This post is libelous and a violation of your rules, as he could not possibly prove his charge that individuals act on my “request” when they make petitions. He has neither done the research (hopefully his academic publishing is of a higher standard of rigor) and nor are these allegations true.

COMPLAINT 2: Regarding his reference to the Flagstaff conference, the only person I can think of being referred to at that event was Arjun Bhagat. But Mr. Bhagat categorically denies the allegation and in fact he has brought the above referenced post to my attention today. So Stephen Brown must be prepared to prove his allegation.

QUESTION: I request you to please let me know in particular what rights individuals have who are not allowed to become members of your list to be able to respond when they are attacked on the list. This is a serious matter of fair due process that cannot wait, as the list management’s complicity makes it a party to slander and libel by allowing such items to get posted with impunity.

REQUEST: Given the above set of facts, I request that an unedited post by me in response to EACH POST that refers to me (separately if I choose) be an option available to me, and, furthermore, that this right to defend and reply be extended to EVERY person named or implied who is not a member.

In considering my request, please bear in mind that scholars take great pride in their sense of objectivity and examining all aspects of a situation. One of my charges against many scholars has been this one-sided “native informant” positioning of “outsiders”, which has been denied but here we have a live example where I am being denied a fair chance to respond.

Furthermore, please note that when I criticized Doniger, Kripal, Caldwell and Courtright, EACH OF THEM RECEIVED AN ADVANCE DRAFT WITH A REQUEST TO COMMENT. Courtright did comment and pointed out errors which I corrected via private email exchanges. Doniger refused to engage with me other than if I became the native informant and she the scholar (very explicitly using those words in an email I have saved). Kripal stated that he would write a separate response, which he did and Sulekha was very open about posting everything anyone had something to say. Caldwell wanted to have an email exchange that could be published; this went thru several dozen iterations of private email and was posted ONLY AFTER BOTH SIDES AGREED THAT THE DRAFT ACCURATELY REPRESENTED THE SITUATION.

I have saved all the emails from the above set of private interactions. The point is that I have acted with reciprocity in my criticisms and now it is the turn of the scholars to give me a fair chance to speak my side on these matters on their forums.

Many scholars fail to understand that their methodology of treating Hindus as some far away anthropological group “out there” is obsolete. Today the Hindu is likely to be one’s American neighbor, doctor, classmate, boss, etc. Hence, many such voices of protest will pop up especially as kids of the Diaspora go to college and bring back ideas that the parents consider strange. Rather than a scholarly grade analysis of this new cultural phenomena, Brown and others seem to think that all this must somehow be artificially crafted by one man.

The truth is that there are many dispersed groups that pop up, that argue and fight amongst themselves, and most vanish after a while. Speaking for myself, I have had many bitter arguments with Hindu activists on a variety of issues both of substance and style. So the scholar who lumps all Hindu voices in a reductionist fashion before any investigation at all, is not living up to the standards claimed by the academy.

Finally, it seems that the RISA-l threads these days are fodder for a few more RISA Lila type of articles over the next few months. As you probably know, Dr. Yvette Rosser already did a 5-part series on such RISA-l posts over the years, and this may be read at: http://www.sulekha.com/expressions/Searchresults.asp?contributor=yvette

As its moderator, you must ask whether these scholars are exposing themselves to further mockery and satire. A recent satire about one specific Wendy’s child is posted at: http://www.sulekha.com/expressions/articledesc.asp?cid=306944

Now, does Brown suggest that all these authors and many dozen others over the past 2 years are working on my “request”?

Looking forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Rajiv Malhotra

Meanwhile, Balu criticized Stephen Brown’s attack, because it offered “No proof, no evidence, but a free-for-all accusation directed against an individual, who is in no position to defend himself.”

Balu also sent the following challenge off-list to Deepak Sarma:[35] “If he [Stephen Brown] has [proof], he should “name” the individuals, who have acted thus in “the past two AAR meetings”, and specify the “times” (it must have happened at least twice), where and when Rajiv Malhotra made this request. If he cannot, he is indulging in libel. He claims to have “heard by word of mouth of other incidents”. This is plain defamation of character.”

Balu wrote privately to Stephen Brown, but got ridiculously illogical responses. Brown’s only point was that he had seen individuals at conferences wearing The Infinity Foundation badge, and that this proved according to him: (i) that whatever these individuals did or said had to be requested by me; and (ii) whatever any other individuals did or said (such as the petitioners) which was critical of scholars must also be caused by me. He called this “Mr. Malhotra’s authority,” and referred to my prior RISA Lila article as further proof, even though readers of that article know that it has nothing to suggest that any specific individuals acted on my behalf.

Stephen Brown seemed to lack even a basic understanding of institutional affiliations: The Infinity Foundation is an institution just as College X is. Just as a conference attendee with a badge saying “College X” may not be deemed to be acting on behalf of a colleague from College X, simply by virtue of institutional affiliation, so also, the advisors and scholars who work with any foundation are diverse, autonomous and independent and speak for themselves. Anyone who has attended our foundation’s events or worked on its projects would attest to this autonomy. In fact, our foundation lacks full-time in-house scholars. It is classified as a “non-operating foundation”, meaning one that gives grants to third parties but does not perform much work in-house. (This is the same classification as Ford, Fulbright and most other foundations, except that ours is tiny by comparison.)

Furthermore, I can categorically say that The Infinity Foundation has not had any affiliation with the students involved in the petition or the HSC (the organization that put up the petition). (Note: To prove our innocence, the Inquisitors demand that we show that we have no relationship with the Devil.)

This goes to show how RISA often relies upon flimsy or manufactured “evidence” entirely based on the political capital of the parties involved – which is not a sign of “objective” scholarship. That such nonsense occurs, and remains unopposed, puts reasonable doubts into the claim that academic peers ensure quality.

John Richard Pincince demonizes me: 

Yet another RISA member, John Richard Pincince, used false and wildly speculative third or fourth level indirect “links” to demonize me.[36]

His post began by establishing his intentions: “So, like any bored doctoral candidate in the midst of completing his dissertation on “Savarkar and Hindutva,” I decided to cruise the internet, and examine the ‘roots’ of this petition…”

His outlandish witch-hunt was based on a five-step flawed logic, as follows.

First, he claimed establishing my “link with the Devil,” with great aplomb and sensation, by writing that the“activities and pursuits of the ‘Infinity Foundation’…[consist of] numerous exciting essays, such as those by Prof./Dr. de Nicolas, Director of the ‘Biocultural Research Institute’ in Florida, David Frawley, Subhash Kak, Koenraad Elst, and former RISA subscriber/participant Ms. Rocher, who is a member of the ‘Indigenous Voices Abroad’ org…”

However, a site search of our foundation on “Frawley” shows that Frawley’s name comes up only in the bibliographies of some other authors’ essays. By that token, any academic journal whose articles include bibliographical references to author X would have to be condemned as being “linked to X.” Regarding Subhash Kak, later I shall explain that this allegation puts Pincince in a corner, because Kak is a speaker at the DANAM event which so many RISA scholars now hope to attend for redemption from their own guilt.

Second, John Richard Pincince claimed to have uncovered the plot behind the petition: “Now, the ‘petition’ appeared on the petition on-line site, where the anti-Prof. Thapar appointment to LoC also appeared (a petition started by Brannon ‘Vrin’ parker, member of the ‘Indigenous Voices Abroad’ and ‘Vedic Friends Association’).”

However, the petition’s on-line site has several thousand petitions, and is an independent organization that probably never heard of any of us in this discussion. Also, Pincince failed to do rudimentary homework, because I did not sign or have anything to do with the anti-Thapar petition, and nor am I associated with the organizations listed by him.

Third, to establish the “nexus” of links, Pincince continued: “The anti-Courtright petition was posted by a graduate student and member of the Hindu Students Council (Indian Students Assoc.) at the Univ. of Louisiana at Lafayette (where Prof. Kak teaches).”

As already noted, I am not associated with the Hindu Student Council. Furthermore, Prof. Kak wrote off-line to point out an error in Pincince’s allegation: “I am at another university called Louisiana State University, situated in Baton Rouge which is 50 miles away from Lafayette.  Pincince seemed to imply that I must be behind the petition. In reality, I had nothing to do with it.” Besides, Kak is in DANAM, the very same organization that dozens of RISA scholars plan to attend in order to be seen as distancing from Hindu-bashing. The contradictions and double standards that escaped the attention of RISA’s peers seem to suggest that these peers might suffer from attention deficit.

Fourth, to establish the “motive” behind the petition, he superimposed what has now become a standard and over-done syndicated “theory”: “So, I would imagine the issue is related less to Ganesa’ state of affairs (e.g. “limp,” “flaccid”) and more a part of a larger campaign for the “self-defense of ‘Hinduism'” in the face of ‘attack’ by Western scholars (the new colonial gaze) and problematic Muslims (the feared ‘other’).”

Cynthia Humes posted a friendly note to John Pincince:[37] Greetings. Thanks for this post, John, but folks should bear in mind that Rajiv Malhotra is not in favor of the petition in question, and his financial support for dialogue efforts between Hindu laity and western scholarship is a matter of public record. yrs, Cynthia.”

Note that she focused on my “financial support” for dialogue with the Hindu “laity,” but failed to acknowledge my intellectual positions on academic issues, although she is well aware of them. Nevertheless, her intentions were good, even if she has not yet moved past the veil of maya separating the unwashed “laity” from the “scholar” jati.

Despite Humes’ clarifying remarks, John Richard Pincince’s demonology continued:[38] [H]ere is what Rajiv Malhotra wrote re: ‘Infinity Foundation’: ‘Many of its projects strive to upgrade the portrayal of India’s civilization in the American education system and media. This involves both challenging the negative stereotypes and also establishing the many positive contributions from India’s civilization.’” Pincince includes a few links to my writings, most notably the rather well-read, “Wendy’s Child Syndrome,” and“The Axis of Neocolonialism.[39]

In the fifth and final step, he simply pronounced his conclusion – without even making any attempt to justify his conclusion – based on my articles cited: “I would not call this an attempt to bridge the gap in “understanding” between so-called ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ perspectives, a form of discourse exemplifying ‘neo-Orientalism’ more than that derided by the articles mentioned above.”

Not only do these articles of mine have no bearing on what he is trying to establish, they represent a tiny portion of what The Infinity Foundation has done. His approach is equivalent to citing one or two articles published by a university and reaching a sweeping conclusion about its “activities and pursuits.”

The conclusion that he claims from this “examination” is something that he did not establish at all. He wrote: “And, there appears to be some sort of ideological affinity between ‘Infinity Foundation’, it’s contributors (names I included in my previous post), and the sort of ‘petitions’ like the Courtright and Thapar ones.”

But here are some dramatic facts: John Richard Pincince is a Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii. Yet his examination into The Infinity Foundation fails to identify the programs that Infinity has sponsored at the University of Hawaii since the mid 1990s. The single largest set of grants cumulatively given by The Infinity Foundation to anyone has gone to the University of Hawaii, where Pincince is a graduate student, and yet he does not mention it in his demonology of the foundation.

A partial listing of The Infinity Foundation’s activities at the University of Hawaii is at: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/haw.htm . These activities have included conferences, talks by eminent scholars, stipends for graduate research, and grants for faculty research. The well-known Prof. Eliot Deutsch has been personally involved in overseeing these activities.

Especially noteworthy is Wendy Doniger’s talk in Hawaii sponsored by The Infinity Foundation. (See http://www.infinityfoundation.com/hawdoniger.htm )

Whether Pincince is plain incompetent or plain prejudiced, the implication is the same – RISA gets disgraced every time it allows fools to use its forum, which is guarded by chowkidars determined to exclude views that expose RISA’s Demonology of Hindus.

Since Courtright criticizes those who selectively quoted from his book, is the selective misquoting by Pincince to be exempted from criticism?

RISA must establish academic standards:

A major complaint that I have had against RISA has been its refusal to give the other side an equal say in the discourse – because of its monopolistic control over the academic distribution channels on Indic religions. The above instances of asymmetry unfolded right before everyone’s eyes, and yet the scholars did nothing, in effect making a mockery out of their proclamations of “civil” conduct.

Using such incidents as a barometer, one shudders to think how much false academic reporting there could be in some scholars’ work with Indian villagers and pandits. The Indian native informants do not get to read what is published after the scholar returns back to the West, and, even if they were to find out, they lack the power, the self-confidence and the means to protest in any manner at all. If this is how badly a member of the Diaspora is treated right before academic peers, one should not place much confidence in the field work of such scholars since there is seldom any credible and neutral witness to attest that their data is authentic.

Therefore, it is important for RISA to establish clear policies, such as on the following matters of methodology:

1. What is the RISA policy on guilt-by-association? If a RISA member belongs to institution X (which could be their University or Church, for instance), to what extent is the person guilty by association with every other member of X? Furthermore, if an article posted at a web site of institution X has a bibliography listing of another person Y then is every member of X guilty by third/fourth level indirect association with Y? In addressing these, RISA must bear in mind that if Pincince’s methodology was applied to RISA members, every Catholic in RISA would have to be accused of the child molesting cases in the Catholic Church. One can see how this policy could implicate just about everyone in RISA by association with their universities, Marxist seminaries, synagogues, churches and temples.

2. What is the hermeneutical role of guilt-by-association”? Once guilt-by-association has been established pursuant to Policy #1 above, what is its relevance in the examination of a propositionwhose author is deemed guilty-by-association? In other words, are propositions to be examined independently of their authors or not? Again, this must be consistently applied to RISA members with the same standard as to outsiders.

3. Can/should the scholars be psychoanalyzed? I see nothing wrong with using the same psychoanalysis techniques to inquire whether the scholar could be projecting his own fantasies on to the Indian cultural psyche. Since the writer(s) of the Ganesha narratives are unknown to us, the scholar could not possibly be making psychoanalytical claims about them. Therefore, he must be making claims about the psyche of the billions of people to whom such narratives have appeared meaningful for millennia. Keeping this in mind, it is plausible that the scholar could have a limp phallus complex about his own body? Could he have been abused as a child by someone with a potbelly who ate sweets and who performed oral sex, leading him to subconsciously superimpose this on to Ganesha’s imagery? Is it conceivable that, as a child, the scholar might have had some sexual encounters with his mother, in competition with his father’s harder penis, and that this latent unfulfilled fantasy now gets superimposed as the interpretation of Ganesha competing with his father, Shiva?

These policies would help establish transparency that would be critical in any RISA campaign to revive its tainted image.

IX. Reality begins to sink in

Finally, there were courageous interventions on RISA-I as well. It must have taken special courage and conviction for Ram-Prasad to write his very extensive and thoughtful piece on RISA-l that covered many issues. His post best reflects my own views on the RISA Lila[40]. I shall summarize each of his main points individually, as they deserve careful reading.

On the strange silence of Hindu scholars who are RISA members: “[I]t has struck me how few [discussants here] have been scholars of Hindu origin. Are there so few people of Hindu cultural background on the list? If so, it does speak, one way or another, of some fundamental problems of scholarship and representation…If not, I am intrigued by the silence, for it must say something about the complexity of their personal positions?”

Ram rightfully rejects a ban on the book, while claiming his identity as a brahmin Hindu scholar. Then he asks directly: “Can there be some understanding, without acceptance, of where some of this [protest] is coming from?”

Ram has the courage to be able to put Motilal’s decision in a bigger context, one that also puts the spotlight on Western publishers and media: “On MBDL – which publisher, which TV station, which cinema, which media outlet now sensibly stands against intense campaigns directed at a product in their charge? Remember Penguin and the Satanic Verses? Numberless cinemas and the Last Temptation of Christ? And so it goes…let those who boycott boycott; but let those who don’t, not.”

I wish that Hindu leaders would pay close attention to Ram’s criticism of how Hindus are responsible for having neglected serious scholarship about their own tradition: “It’s true that Western Indians have pushed themselves into a strange place in which high standards of professional education have combined with ignorance of and engagement with their ancestral traditions (only very recently and rarely do I get British Hindus taking Religious Studies at Lancaster, because they are all off to become doctors and engineers and management consultants). So they [Indians] do not find themselves usually able to intervene in the way that western scholars demand.”

At the same time, he is quick to point out that the common Christians have refused to get reduced to the status of passive consumers, in the way the academy might expect of Hindus: “But a similar demand [of academic sophistication] by theologians from Christians in the west would be treated as intellectual snobbery and castigated as such! (Note that I am not saying that lay Hindu interventions are therefore to be treated as intellectual respectable just for that reason – only that there ought to be an awareness of the problem of expecting them to be invariably intellectual in the first place). To invite those who disagree with Courtright’s reading of Ganesa to write their own version is, I suspect (and I say this with great respect for a wonderful scholar, Patrick O), perhaps to miss the point?”

Ram urges his colleagues in the academy to treat Hindu conservatism on par with religious conservatism in the West, with the critical difference that there is much less self-representation in the case of Hindus:

“Deeply reactionary apologetics is not something confined to elements of the Hindu community (in America, or in India itself), as the well-explored literature on fundamentalism, evangelism and their relationship with political conservatism has shown. The difference is that there has not been either the critical mass or the structural opportunity for Hindus of that ‘right-wing’ cast… to develop programmes and forums comparable to Christian fundamentalism in America. Now, I would guess that practically every western member of the list would be deeply resistant to such fundamentalisms – but I am suggesting that the analytic understanding of reactionary and/or fundamental Christian politics be extended to Hindutva in the west. Given the lack of a developed, self-sustaining and politically sufficient power-base, there is bound to be a confrontational exploration of possibilities for self-expression by those feeling alienated, mis-represented and insulted by the academy. (Where are the Hindu equivalents for the journals, the presses, the radio and television stations, the universities even, the political power-bases, that many Christian groups, some surprisingly moderate in their theology, use to inveigh against and counter the perceived excesses of liberal theology?)”

Ram makes no secret about the privileged position occupied by Westerners in the study of Hinduism:“’Western’ scholars alone are entrusted with writing in the New York Times or the (London) Times Literary Supplement, again and again – and we ask ourselves, is it just that none of us is really good enough to be asked to write about our culture and our philosophies, or is it something else…”

He openly expresses his sensitivities as a Hindu“I found much of the Ganesa book rigorous and useful, but was disquietened (for all that I come from a Sri Vaisnava family!) by the psychoanalytic passages. See, this was a matter of speculation; not something falsifiable through counter-argument…But here too, I asked myself, is it just some primeval Hindu reflex that I do not feel exhilarated or even enlightened by this interpretation, or is it something else…There are conflicts here, between…the academic process of review and recognition on the one hand, and the vast asymmetries of access, exposure and privilege that still mark non-western efforts to have a voice in the west.”

Ram’s final advice to his peers is to understand where the Diaspora is coming from: “…I respectfully suggest that the vigor of your convictions could perhaps be leavened by an understanding of those who perhaps perceive their stake in the matter differently…”

Another much-needed balanced voice in the discussion was that of Ramdas Lamb:[41]Can we question nothing any other scholar writes? Clearly, if we wrote nothing that offended anyone, there would soon be no books at all, but at the same time, should we not consider the implications and value of what we write?What happened to the emphasis in academia on cultural awareness and sensitivity? I thought that is one of the concepts we are supposed to teach at liberal academic institutions. Is it that we just teach it, but not actually practice it? I guess we should not let the views of Hindus get in our way…Another [RISA scholar] labeled me an “anti-free speech Hindu fundamentalist” for my comments…For a long time, people have looked at academics as residents of an ivory tower, out of touch with “the real world.” If our research does not reflect reality, then we are out of touch. If our writings are not relevant to the people and traditions about whom we write, then we also make ourselves irrelevant.”

Ram’s position emboldened Professor Rambachan, a disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who is the head of Arsha Vidya Gurukulum, to make very important and helpful comments:[42]

As a Hindu scholar…if we delight in representing our tradition as one that encourages the freedom of inquiry and discussion, we must not condone measures, directly or indirectly, that limit such freedom, even when the fruits are not to our liking. If we affirm the universal relevance of the Hindu tradition, our notions of “ownership” must be examined critically. At the same time, a faith-community has a right to express its thoughts and feelings about our scholarship, without everyone being branded as fanatical extremists, as a reminder to us that the subject of our study is a living sacred tradition in which deep emotions and meanings are invested. Scholarly discernment is required also to know the pain of those whose traditions we make the object of our study.

Hopefully…we [scholars] will embrace the opportunity to thoughtfully consider the broader issues involved. How can our exercise of academic freedom be balanced with sensitive responsiveness to concerns of the faith community and its self-understanding? How are such concerns relevant or irrelevant to our scholarly pursuits? How can dialogue between these two communities be facilitated in order that the nature of the academic study of religion be properly represented and mutual stereotyping, suspicion and mistrust, so evident in these exchanges, be overcome?

Laurie Patton echoed this new thinking in RISA: “I also think we might think about how we might write differently, too. Who is our audience and readership and how do we focus on the balance between freedom and offence?” She asked: “How does the Internet contribute to the problem, and how does it help? How can the issue of offence be dealt with in a constructive and positive way, through mechanisms which do their best to avoid unnecessary suffering?” She concluded with hope that lessons would be learnt: “I am hoping this episode, which is far from over, and which is so sad and hurtful to everyone on all sides, can be turned around for new and hopeful conversations in precisely this vein.”

Once Ram-Prasad had let the genie out of the bottle, it triggered the watershed event. Paul Courtright acknowledged his own change of perspective: “One of the things that has been painful for me in the controversy around my book is that I wrote it over twenty years ago, in a different discursive environment than we have now.” Courtright goes on to explain that “were I writing that book today I would, hopefully, be more aware of how it might be read by some Hindu readers in both India and its diasporas.”

After hurling so many insults at me over the past few years, RISA scholars finally seemed to heed my call to stop treating Hindus as native informants and to start to interact with them as equals. It was a new position from Courtright when he went on to write on RISA-l: “In the early 1980s, when I wrote my book, the audiences for our work were much less interactive than they are now. I think there would be value in featuring a RISA or Hinduism Group panel on the issue of changes in audiences and how to think better in advance about how we present our scholarly work today. I hope we will think carefully about the methodological applications of the sorts of concerns Professor Rambachan articulates and develop more nuanced hermeneutical approaches to our research and writing.”

Once Paul Courtright had opened this door, other voices of reason from within the Western academic system spoke up in a constructive manner. On November 6th, Constantina Rhodes Bailly, Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College, wrote:

Dear RISA colleagues,

As Paul has graciously pointed out, if he had written the book today, some of the issues would be framed differently than they had twenty years ago. One of the interesting and disturbing points here is that what is happening with Paul’s book and with “Hindu Studies” is happening in other areas of religious studies as well. Similar and perhaps even more heated debates are going on, for example, in Native American studies. In our RISA discussions, there has been mention of the possible origins of such sentiments against the way we Western scholars approach the study of “other” religions, but much of it seems to be heated and volatile reactions against particular works, and the objections are mostly coming from non-academics.

Aside from the diatribes against our approaches that come from non-academic writers, there are references to (unnamed) writers (scholars?) who approach the issue of subaltern and post-colonial studies. I would like to read these works to acquire a more systematic understanding of what native Hindu scholars are saying about how non-Hindus do scholarship. Who are the “respected” writers on post-colonialism? I don’t think I’ve seen any such writers mentioned by name on our list. Can anyone recommend any such writers and/or their works? And would we want to invite them to join any such panel that seems to be in the process of formulation? Or is this just a naive assumption on my part??

The postcolonial critique has not been allowed to have much impact on Hinduism Studies thus far – perhaps, a case of departmental turf protection? But there must also be caution because many postcolonial scholars are out of sympathy with religion, especially with Hinduism, and might not approve of their work being applied to defend Hindu perspectives.

What must be understood in this welcome soul-searching that appears to have started in RISA is that American Hinduism is a minority religion in America, and that it deserves the same treatment that is already being given to other American minority religions – such as Native American, Buddhist, Islamic – by the academy. The subaltern studies depiction of Hinduism as being dominant religion of India must, therefore, be questioned in the American context.

Graham Schweig posted on RISA-l the forthcoming DANAM 2003 program, designed and sponsored by the Hindu Diaspora to foster intellectual dialogue between scholars and the community of Indic traditions. This event now assumes new significance – as the vehicle for redemption-by-association. As a Diaspora, we have come a long way over the past three years, and the academy must start to take non-academic intellectual positions more seriously and less arrogantly than before.

The irony is that the DANAM program features many speakers who have been demonized on this very RISA-l discussion, and consistently in many other academic forums. Pincince considered an article by Subhash Kak that was posted on an Infinity Foundation web site as his “evidence” for demonizing me personally, but would he now like to similarly condemn all those in RISA who are lining up to attend the DANAM event? Or are the rules different now that Courtright has blessed the need for change? Is RISA behaving like a cult that follows the latest bandwagon? Attending the DANAM event is now important symbolically for RISA members.

But RISA must also confront yet another featured speaker at DANAM, Mona Vijaykar, a Hindu activist from California, who wrote off-line: “Westerners are careful not to hurt the sentiments of Muslims, even if they privately ridicule them. Hindu death threats in the petition are as hollow as the menacing look of a toddler with a plastic sword.” Vijaykar then went to on explain the importance of the spontaneity of Hindu activism: “As a ‘self-styled’ activist, I know that I hardly popped up but gradually evolved from a disgruntled immigrant to one who was forced to take things into her own hands. It is a matter of pride that there are so many Indians who have taken the initiative to form groups all over the country.”

George Sudarshan, emeritus physicist of considerable renown, is another well-known non-RISA scholar with a publicly pro-Hindu stance, and he, too, is on the DANAM speaker list.

Professor Pappu is another DANAM speaker, and here is yet another conflict that RISA must face: Pappu’s bi-annual Vedanta Conferences have been sponsored by The Infinity Foundation since the late 1990s. Finally, I am on the panel at DANAM as well[43].

So what does the DANAM event do to the hermeneutics of guilt-by-association that has become so central to many RISA-ologists? On the one hand, it is a must-attend event, because the RISA big-wigs have made a beeline for it, and the rest of the cult must follow. On the other hand, DANAM’s very existence came about to bring out voices that have been abused or suppressed by RISA directly or indirectly. Will all RISA attendees also have to be demonized as guilty for attending DANAM? If not, should RISA offer retribution to Diaspora members who have been abused by it based on guilt-by-association? From guilt-by-association, it has changed to redemption-by-association.

Fred Smith continued to push open the new door wider, as RISA’s old guard realized that there was a new reality to deal with, and that the days of their neocolonial chauvinism and Hindu-bashing arrogance seemed to be drawing to a close. Smith wrote:

As Constantina pointed out, this proprietary stance towards the study of religion is not something indigenous to recent South Asia. Brown’s book (reviewed recently in the NY Times) addresses Native American religion, though the ramifications clearly go much further. To set our own situation in a broader academic context, I would like to suggest a series of interrelated panels at next year’s AAR, dealing with these issues in different regional and conceptual areas of religious discourse (e.g., South Asian religion, Japanese or African religions, gay and lesbian issues, etc.).

It is important to note the change in language that has taken place: For the first time in RISA’s history, to the best of my knowledge, the Diaspora voices are not being branded as saffronists, Hindutva fanatics, fascists, chauvinists, dowry extortionists, Muslim killers, nun rapists, Dalit abusers, etc. One has to wait and see whether this is temporary or permanent.

Pratap Kumar joined this soul-searching bandwagon as well: “Paul is right in identifying the “changes in audiences” in today’s class rooms and also in society who read the academic books. In my humble view, it is not so much that the earlier audience was “less interactive” as Paul suggests, but rather there is a new audience who are not merely scholars but practitioners…Secondly, there is growing concern in our contemporary world about the way “west” in general depicts the non-western world… One thing that must happen, if we need to progress in our scholarly endeavors, is that there should be more interaction and contact between scholars from outside and from within. The intent of the Delhi conference in December 18-21 is precisely about this and to enable Indian scholars to create linkages with their non-Indian scholars from the outside. Hopefully the intended goal of creating a more structured Indian Association for the Study of Religion will have been achieved during this important meeting. Those of you who might be there should become active participants in the endeavour.”

The following is yet another challenge to RISA’s practitioners of demonology by association: The Delhi conference on Indic Religions, in December 2003, that Pratap Kumar recommends scholars to attend, has The Infinity Foundation as its major sponsor. Furthermore, certain US based academic scholars with considerable power vested in them by virtue of institutional affiliations had made phone calls complaining to the Indian organizers of this conference, and pressured scholars to boycott it because it was “tainted” by The Infinity Foundation’s sponsorship. The conference plans proceeded despite these persistent threats of censorship by the scholars. Today, the Delhi conference is positioned as large and prestigious, thanks to the hard work of CSDS, and the very same scholars are now feel compelled to attend it and erase their earlier attempts to boycott it.

XI. The Myths of RISA

If Wendy Doniger pursues what I consider to be her most significant potential area of inquiry, there could be a major breakthrough in the study of Western culture. For, she more than any other scholar today, has promoted the theory that culture is a playing out of ancient myths and archetypes, and the human actors unconsciously perform imagining being free agents.

So far, she has trained her children to apply this mainly to Hindu myths and modern culture. But she could also inspire scholars to apply the same theory in the reverse direction, i.e. to interpret contemporary “liberal” culture, such as the behavior exemplified by some RISA members.

Below are some archetypes to interpret this RISA Lila in terms of Biblical myths that appear tosubconsciously drive many RISA scholars’ behavior, despite professing secularism. “Liberals” hate the thought of being associated with such George Bushisms as “Good versus Evil”. But because these archetypes operate subliminally, one cannot blame the scholars, who are, after all, not aware of these behavior patterns.

One close Christian friend and academic scholar of religion read this essay and pointed out that she considered this entire section to be a matter of “ridicule” and “cheap shots” against her faith. But, it is precisely this kind of scholarship that is being applied to the interpretation of Hindu myths, for which the Wendy School has become so famous, and has won awards and prestigious appointments. My friend’s emotional outburst against what she considers to be a “tendentious caricature” of Christianity is telling for two reasons: (i) It goes to show how much psychoanalysis is yet to be done to interpret modern Western society in terms of Biblical myths. (ii) It demonstrates how similar ordinary Hindus and Christians (including secular Christian scholars) are when it comes to such emotional reactions concerning their respective faiths. My friend is quick to point out that “two wrongs do not make a right,” so I apologize in advance if there are any hurt feelings cause by what follows below.

At the same time, many Christian and Jewish friends and scholars have complemented this section as the best part of this essay, and have expressed great interest in further pursuing its proposed research ideas.

The absolute nature of Evil:

In Hinduism, the essence of every self is the Ultimate Reality and Supreme Being – “Thou art that” – and the equivalent of Evil is avidya (ignorance) that masks this truth. On the other hand, in the Bible, because of the Original Sin of Adam-Eve, every human being is condemned to Eternal Damnation. The contrast could not be greater: The self is the Original Divinity in Hinduism, and the self is the Original Sinner in Abrahamic religions. The cosmology of God versus Satan in the Bible divides everything into Good/Evil essences that play out on Earth. By contrast, Ishvara in Hinduism has no external enemy, and everything is internalized with no “other” to blame.

For instance, in the Mahabharata, the enemies are not “Evil”, but are simply people like us – in fact, our relatives – who are violating the dharma and must be fought. Therefore, in the evenings, when the war is in “pause” mode, the elders from the warring sides meet in harmony to have intellectual discussions, and remain above the animosities. In Abrahamic cultures, the “other” is essentialized as Evil in an absolute manner and “fraternizing with the enemy” is a crime in its own right.

In the case of RISA, this archetype makes it problematic for most scholars to work with the Diaspora Hindu “others”. It has made it difficult for RISA leaders to appreciate why I wish to engage in intellectual discourse with them while at the same time disagreeing with them, not essentializing them as Evil but as ignorant and selfish.

The Chosen People:

While at first only the Jews were given “chosen people” status by God, He later amended his rules and extended the offer to all human beings, provided they accepted the History of God’s one Son on Earth as unique and unquestionable. This offer by God operates as a sort of opt-in history club, where belief in the specific history – as memorialized in the charter of the club – is the sole basis for one’s Redemption upon death and entitlement to a condominium in Heaven forever.

Recently, (pseudo) intellectualism, based on the liberal arts and humanities, spun off as another elitist club where membership is based on acceptance and use of certain “theories” that are always by Europeans and that privilege Eurocentric ideas as being universal.

Some RISA scholars have built fortresses to remain separate from the Hindu “laity,” such that any engagements with the latter are depicted as being a big favor on the part of the scholars.

Martyrdom and Victimhood:

Most Christian saints were martyrs – killed by Evil others – whereas in Hindu-Buddhist history, saints were always living saints and not because they died in action in “Good against Evil” battles. Related to this is the archetype of victimhood, where a Good Victim” is glorified and becomes a role model. Jesus is history’s most famous victim, central to God’s own personal plan for humanity.

This archetype has played out in Western society in the form of glorifying victimhood as a sign of being “Good”. A major industry in the US is for rich lawyers to help “victims,” defined as anyone who had coffee spilled on them, or had “emotional damage,” or is upset at others for some reason that qualifies for litigation. There are over a million such lawsuits annually in USA. These lawyers outspend all other categories of advertisers in yellow pages advertising. They secure their clients “Retribution,” which is another Biblical archetype.

Therefore, Western human rights activists, and non-Westerners trained and funded by them, go around the world creating new categories of “victims” that can be used in divide-and-conquer strategies against other cultures. In India’s case, the largest funding of this type goes to middlemen who can deliver narratives about “abused” Dalits and native (especially Hindu) women.

Victim glorification in Western culture extends beyond humans. Every year, before Thanksgiving Day, US television broadcasts video clips of the turkey that has been chosen as the White House Thanksgiving Dinner Turkey. It is presented as a great honor to be eaten at the White House. Television commercials for Sunkist Tuna show a fish explaining how proud it is to be worthy of being canned in a Sunkist can, because not every fish would qualify.

In almost every encounter that I have had with RISA, they are quick to adopt the “victim” role. In fact, this was the biggest weapon that was used in this RISA Lila to end the petition: The small handful of “threats” by anonymous persons was ignored for too long by those responsible for the petition, because they did not understand the politics of victimhood. The interjection by Shiv Sena was another bad event as it enhanced the “scholar victim” sympathy factor. Hindus leaders must understand the myths that drive others’ subliminal behavior, and must learn to think strategically.

Any means for Good to defeat Evil is justified:

The Biblical meaning of human life is expressed in narratives about fighting on God’s “Good” side to defeat Satan’s “Evil” side. By contrast, Hindu and Buddhist philosophies do not have any Satan “out there”. This Biblical archetype has played out in history as Good versus Evil political theory, and is nowadays being used to justify taking control over the world’s oil supply in order to put it in the “Good” hands.

Likewise, Pincince, Brown, Zydenbos and some others are seen by many RISA colleagues as justified in fabricating whatever it takes for the sake of defeating the “Evil” Hindu Diaspora. It naturally follows that the “Good” side’s methods are not to be subject to ethical scrutiny. The end justifies the means – hence, the silence when RISA violates its own rules for “civil” conduct.

Freedom of the Good side to conquer the Earth:

It is God’s ultimate wish that the Good (being God’s People) shall rule. In this day and age, the distribution channels by which knowledge gets filtered, selected, packaged, positioned, and spread into every corner of society are the most important institutions that the Good People must control in order to rule.

Hence, Motilal Banarsidas, as the only non-Western major academic-grade publishing channel on Indology, must be brought under the control of the Good People of RISA.

Motilal is to be allowed freedom only so long as it performs what the RISA scholars want. The moment it exerts its own commercial independence in the same manner as every Western publisher does, it is to be bombed out of existence, just as “democracy and freedom” are to be imposed upon another country even against its own will. Freedom only applies to the Good side.

Original Sin and guilt-by-association:

The Original Sin in the Bible caused all humans worldwide to be declared “condemned”, as guilty-by-association. In the centuries-long witch-hunting by the Church in Europe, any association with any condemned symbol, organization, relationship – no matter how indirect or casual – was grounds to be persecuted by the Church, whose police powers would make today’s Islamic fatwas look benign by comparison.

One of the sure ways to condemn someone was to charge that he or she had had sexual intercourse with the Devil. The Inquisition would then pry into the most intimate imaginable details of the guilty-by-association accused person. The burden to prove his or her innocence was only rarely achieved.

Demonology as the hermeneutics of guilt-by-association:

The Church theologians perfected a sophisticated tool-box of intellectual devices to prove guilt-by-association, and this became known as Demonology.

The Wicca religion was the first to be demonized, and the language started to reflect this. This is why “wicked” (from wicca) has an evil connotation, because it is a description of the Wicca people. Witches are now considered to be bad, suspect and outright dangerous, but at one time they were simply priestesses of pre-Christian European religions.

Tour guides in Romania inform visitors that Count Dracula was a very nice ruler who did a lot for his people. But his enemies demonized him so successfully that today his name is synonymous with Evil.

The thugs were a jati in India that fought against the British very fiercely and violently, and the British classified them officially as a “criminal tribe.” Today, their jati’s name is commonly accepted as a pejorative that means being criminal.

Human rights activist Vandana Shiva describes how the West demonized the “beedi” child-labor to fill the pockets of multinationals.

Veena Oldenburg’s book, Dowry Murder, explains how the British demonized native culture by blaming it for all sorts of social problems that were not caused by the culture, and, in fact, in many cases, were caused by the British. This enabled them to enact new “human rights” laws to save the natives from Indian culture, and, in the process, to expropriate massive amounts of property in India.

Today, Christian evangelists openly say that Hindu deities are demons.

Many Hindu gurus – such as Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Muktananda and others – have become demonized by RISA scholars. This is a part of the Evil Brahmin Conspiracy Theory that is often the meta-narrative of certain RISA scholarship, in an attempt to demonize the Sanskrit traditions and texts. Under the pretence of using what is a discredited Freudian analytic framework, many attributes of Hindu deities are given a heavy pornographic gloss by many RISA scholars.

Numerous examples from the RISA-l archives demonstrate how Demonology principles get applied today, even by supposedly liberal and secular scholars. While untouchability has been outlawed in India, it seems to have become reincarnated in RISA. Demonology is the method being used to create new untouchables. Individuals and institutions that challenge RISA’s hegemony are to be demonized and turned into untouchables.

The strategy behind RISA’s Demonology is to try to brand Diaspora opponents as untouchables, so that others will fear association with them.

For example, Jack Hawley of Barnard College has – with the help of Indian students under his direction – branded me as the “rich Rajiv Malhotra” who he accuses of buying up scholars with money and using money to “construct a new Hinduism” that would not be embarrassing. Prior demonology has tried to turn Subhash Kak and others into untouchables, and now Pincince attempted to use guilt-by-association with Kak to also turn The Infinity Foundation into another untouchable. The strategy behind all this is to discourage RISA scholars from working with the foundation.

Physical genocides are unlawful, but turning the Hindu Diaspora into a metaphorical Evil/Untouchable has become a highly prized skill in RISA today.

Appropriation of symbolic capital:

Another kind of takeover by the Good side is of symbols of conquered (Evil) peoples. Many pagan symbols such as the “Christmas” tree, “Easter” eggs, etc. were hijacked even as the pagans were genocided. Native Americans have successfully sued in US courts to put a stop to the appropriations and distortions of their symbols for all sorts of frivolous uses – sports team names, etc. – by a culture which the Native Americans regard as the reason for their genocide.

Likewise, yoga, meditation and Bharat Natyam are among the latest Hindu symbols being rapidly taken over by Christianity, while in parallel, other sacred symbols – such as Ganesha – that cannot be Christianized are being denigrated into oblivion. This dynamic must be examined in the context of symbols as a form of capital. What can be appropriated as positive serves to boost the portfolio of the conqueror, and what remains unavailable is trashed so as to turn it into a liability of the other side.

Ramdas Lamb explained this as follows[44]“Western academia rightly claims to promote multicultural awareness. Additionally, however, it also has the potential and tendency to promote a hegemonic Westernized globalization, in which it picks and chooses which aspects of other cultures are to be considered acceptable and which aspects can be denigrated and rejected at will. In this way, some elements of Western scholarship not only ignore other cultures’ self views, but express a disdain for them in much the same way as the colonialists of the past.” I have previously called this “academic arson,” and developed The U-Turn Theory to explain it.

AAR 2002 had as its major presentation a Christianized Bharat Natyam dance (featuring the story of Jesus/Mary). Prof. Arti Dhand and another young Indian woman – both heavily dressed in native costumes – were displayed as “good” Hindus who appreciated this. Dhand then gave a remarkable paper that was a response to a Hindu group’s complaints over the Christianized performance. (My assumption is that the group was HICAD, but I cannot be sure.) Her central thesis was that the dance technique and symbolism are in the public domain for anyone to claim, and that she, as a Hindu, approved of Christianizing the dance because the “only thing that mattered” was the genuineness of feelings with which it was performed. Since the dancer’s feelings were sincere, she said, the Christian Bharat Natyam was a good thing. The audience gave her a big applause.

However, Dhand’s analysis of what was going on was too narrow and shallow. The broader canvas required to contextualize the issue seemed to have escaped her completely. She did not start with a good purva-paksha in the first place.

Symbols are a form of capital – see Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital for more background. Competing civilizations hijack opponents’ symbols to boost their own capital, and denigrate others’ symbols to lower others brand value. This principle is known to anyone with even a rudimentary background in any competitive field, such as marketing. To make her position tenable, an assumption that becomes necessary is that religions and cultures are not competitors against each other, but this assumption was not even acknowledged by her, much less proven.

Since Christianity has a public strategy to aggressively “harvest Hindu souls” and has allocated several billions of dollars of budget to accomplish this, and since Christianity fields a massive sales force with quantitative measures of performance (such as dollars per conversion achieved), it seems facile for academic scholars of RISA to ignore the reality of competition.

Once the competition between religions – which is a Christian mandate and independent of whether Hindus want to compete or not – is put on the academic table for examination, the impact of appropriating symbols/techniques from the other while denigrating the other at the same time is too central to be dismissed simply as a matter of whether the thief did his deed with “sincere feelings.”

Why Ganesha is a strategic target of Demonology:

The denigration of sacred symbols serves to embarrass young impressionable Hindus, so that they feel pressured to dilute their Hindu identities. Ganesha is a very strategic symbol in this regard. The reason for this may be appreciated from the following historical facts.

The psychoanalytic hypothesis proposed below is unproven at this stage, but is certainly plausible. Therefore, it is suspicious that no scholar has even tested this hypothesis.

In the second edition of the widely ready anthology, “Sources of Indian Tradition,” (Columbia University Press, 1988), edited by Stephen Hay, Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856 – 1920) is described by British journalist, Valentine Chirol, as the “Father of Indian Unrest” against British rule. One of Tilak’s major tools was the use of Ganesha as a symbol of nationalist self-assertion against the British:

“His Marathi style was particularly effective and made a direct appeal to villagers, who would gather to have it read to them. Tilak also promoted in his papers the celebration of two new annual festivals – one dedicated to the Hindu god Ganesha, the other honoring the Maratha hero Shivaji. His purpose in organizing these festivals was to develop in the Maharashtrian people a sense of pride in their common history and religion;” [p.140][45]

As a member of the Congress, Tilak promoted militancy against the British. He was arrested by the British for “countenancing political assassination,” and was imprisoned for six years in Burma. While in prison, he wrote his magnum opus, a large commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Stephen Hay explains the importance of Tilak’s interpretation of Gita in India’s nationalist activism: “He stressed that Hinduism’s most popular sacred poem preached political as well as religious activity and hinted that violence in a righteous cause was morally justifiable.”

The psychoanalytic hypothesis is as follows: Subconsciously, Western scholars have a latent aversion to Ganesha because of the role his symbolism played in anti-colonial activity.

In evaluating this theory, one must consider that Western scholars have recently given Ganesha a Nazi image, clearly with the motive to demonize him.

Srinivas Tilak discussed this point on RISA-l, but it was simply ignored by the scholars, as if to hush up the issue:[46] I particularly found the cover illustration of Social History of that number [Social History, vol 28, no 2 (May 2003)] very offensive. The illustration is by James Ferguson which first appeared in the Weekend Edition of the Financial Times of May 4, 2002. It shows a very mean looking seated Ganesha wearing Nazi style boots. In one hand he carries a staff which looks like a stop sign with a Christian cross. A line runs through it striking the cross. Across from this sign at the bottom left is Ganesha’s cushion. It has a star and crescent sign on it with the end of Ganesha’s ‘angavastra’ running through it (and crossing it out as it were). The fist of another hand is tightly closed ready to hit. The palm of the third hand is open and about to strike. By the side of Ganesha lies an open book showing a page with the swastika.”

Clearly, Ganesha has been hijacked in the above symbolism and portrayed as a Nazi demon persecuting Muslims (crescent), Jews (star) and Christians (cross), wearing his Nazi boots.

Academic scholars often excuse themselves from social responsibility by claiming that their works have very limited readership. But, over time, their ideas and images disperse into society at large, because of the legitimacy given to them by prestigious academic voices. For example, Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, one of the foremost art museums in the US, features some of the rarest and most precious art objects of Asia, and its coffee table book explains the large 11th century Ganesha carving in the collection, as follows:[47] “Ganesa, 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.” And then goes on to say: “Ganesa’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.”

US Museums are mainstream distribution channels in disseminating ideas about culture. Journalists, schoolteachers, kids, parents and public officials go to museums. They assume that what they see there is an authentic portrayal, and what they learn there gets assimilated as part of their long-term attitudes and biases.

Anthropology of RISA:

Rather than focusing on Courtright, I have examined the behavior of many RISA scholars as another opportunity to do anthropological analyses on scholars of Hinduism in the Western academy. Clearly, much more work needs to be done in this regard and this essay is a humble beginning.

A serious Hindu (and in fact, Indian) intellectual failure for the past several centuries has been in not studying and developing theories of “others.” When others attacked us, often we were confused about whether they really were others, whether we were to blame for our predicament, whether these others were really helping us, and miscellaneous excuses to justify not doing anything. This is a very common reaction from many Indians even today, when such discomforting matters are brought to their attention.

Yet, every Indian cricket team studies its opponents, India’s army researches its opponents, Indian diplomats theorize about the other side prior to negotiations, Indian businesses do competitor research, Indian political parties have elaborate frameworks to understand other parties, and the Indian darshana systems were built on intensely debating competing darshanas systematically. Therefore, one cannot say that Indians are inherently uncompetitive. Certainly, in their jobs and businesses, Indians are fierce competitors.

The problem could be that the preachers of Hinduism have focused exclusively on moksha dharma, and neglected the teaching of pravitti-marga – life in the mundane world where others exist and are to be engaged. Yet, others are a central part of the teachings of the Mahabharata.

XI. (Re) negotiating our place in globalization

An alternative to the use of myths would be to model this Lila as the great RISA-Diaspora Power Game:What is happening is not about intellectual positions of genuine interest to RISA, but is about the game for individual and collective power to control the discourse, symbols and identities of Indian culture.

The diagram below illustrates the power structure of the institutions of production, distribution and retailing of knowledge about Indian traditions. It indicates how the power-play hinges on control over the distribution channels.

The dominant culture’s power is invested in its theories, and the academic gatekeepers are usually loyal to these theories. Conversely, these theories are the source of scholars’ personal power. Therefore, a challenge to the methods and theories is treated as the most serious form of threat imaginable, especially when it comes from free thinkers located outside the institutional framework.

Theories in the humanities are a form of capital that the contemporary Western academy has increasingly developed and monopolized. They are the lenses through which students are trained to examine cultures. Even most Indians trained in Western scholarship use the Western categories. The journals in which they must publish their works are mostly Westernized in their ideology; the research grants or NGO (non-government organizations) projects they seek come from Western foundations; and the prestigious jobs they seek are with Western or Western sponsored institutions. These theories – a form of unconscious Eurocentrism – are so entrenched that they have become positioned as universal truths.

Globalization has, in practice, become the Westernization of the globe, because the Western intellectual framework is being promoted as the universal standard. At the same time, Western academia has created its own style of Neocolonialism that has replaced the political colonialism of the past, and non-Western people are being pressured through a variety of means to give up their native identities and frameworks, and to adopt Western identities for advancement. Use of Western theories in one’s discourse is a measure of progress and success. The wider implications of this in cross-cultural and geopolitical terms are an interesting subject to be examined in separate essays.

XII. Letter from a 14-year old Indian-American schoolgirl

The following has been published in many Indian-American newspapers, and I quote it in its entirely. It was written by Trisha Pasricha of Houston, TX, a 14-year old schoolgirl, who writes an advice column for kids.


It’s 8:00 a.m., and students slowly trickle into Mr. West’s 6th grade history class. The majority of the people, including the teacher, are white. One African-American, two Orientals, and myself, a second generation Indian girl, make up the rest of the class.

On the blackboard is written “World Religions.” As the rest of the class prepares for a boring two hours, I can already feel my stomach sink – what did I do to deserve this?

We are handed a fill-in-the-blank chart of major world religions and are instructed to look in our books for the answers. Finishing quickly, I hand in my chart to Mr. West at his desk, and turn to leave. “Now wait a minute, you put ‘monotheistic’ down for Hindooism,” he remarks.

“I know,” I reply, feeling my face burn as the class looks up.

“Hindoos are polytheistic.”

“No, they’re not,”

“Are you a Hindoo?”



Scattered murmurs break out among my peers, whispering about how freaky Hindus worship elephants and monkeys. Great.

“Well,” Mr. West says standing up and going to the chalkboard, “from what I understand, Hindoos are all about their caste system.” And he begins a long, irrelevant, and incorrect explanation, which he memorized from our textbook. What does that have to do with being monotheistic? I don’t even bother correcting him, to save myself any more embarrassment. I wanted to get out of there. Fast.

7th grade starts, and it’s culture day in history. “Both of my parents are Indian–” I begin when it’s my turn. “Do you mean Native American Indian, or Middle Eastern Indian?” my teacher asks. Sounds like it’s going to be another fun year in social studies.

When 8th grade starts, India and Hinduism are summed up in a few short sentences by the teacher. India is described as filled with pollution, cows, and poverty-stricken people. Hindus love to bathe in rivers where they throw the ashes of their parents and yes, they do worship elephants and monkeys.

“Do you speak Indian?” I’m asked at least two times a week. “I heard there were two thousand gods and every full moon you had to give a sacrifice to them. Do you do that?” No, I try to explain that all the gods are really aspects of one almighty being. I’ve never sacrificed anything except my dignity, which slowly dwindles with each question.

The release of popular award-winning books such as Homeless Bird, which portrays the typical Indian girl who is forced to get married at thirteen, didn’t help Indians anywhere. And, who could have guessed, the author hadn’t even been to India! No kidding.

Six entire chapters in the textbook were devoted to Christianity, whereas one page is given to the history of India and the teachings of Hinduism. A second page is entirely about Lord Shiva, accompanied by a rather unbecoming picture of an ancient dancing Shiva statue. Buddhism gets one paragraph.

This doesn’t make sense, as most of the school already knows so much about Christianity, but hardly any even knew Buddhism or Hinduism existed. Now that they did, we would be ridiculed publicly. Thank you, Board of Education.

At last, high school starts. I almost die of shock when I see the 9th grade textbook has devoted an entire 3 sentences to Sikhism and Jainism. It claims Sikhism “combines the Muslim belief of one god with the Hindu belief of reincarnation.”

Christianity in India and the ever-popular “western influence” get pages and pages of text. One of the main pictures which help represent “typical life in India” is one my fellow students describe as some sort of drag-queen in make-up doing an obscure peacock dance. Out of all the dazzling pictures of Indian culture, that is the one they have to stick in? They chose that one over a picture of, say, the classic Taj Mahal?

But the fun just gets funnier — the next picture of a sari earns a whole two sentences. Oh, but it’s not an exquisite silk or glittering embroidered sari. Nope, it’s a dirty yellow (perhaps once white) cotton sari worn by an old woman bathing in the Ganges River. In spite of its pollution, “Hindus readily drink and bathe in the Ganges’ water; people even come to die in the river.” To further prove their point, they stick in a picture of a filthy and trash laden section of Ganges, not a clean part, which much of it is.

I kid you not, upon reading this and looking at the picture, a boy in my class had to be excused to the nurse’s office because his stomach had become queasy.

Now we come to the sacred cow. They say entire streets are blocked because Hindus don’t want to run over our beloved cow. C’mon, even in America, people aren’t going to just run over a local cow; they’ll find a way to move it or get around it.

On an ending note, Indians are technologically behind. They fail to mention that we have a space program, nuclear capabilities, and many Indians, believe it or not, have heard of a computer.

Every day, young desi children and teenagers are unreasonably tormented because of our perceived background. The school textbooks are half the cause. The average American doesn’t know squat about India, and with the help of poorly researched textbooks, they learn nonsense. The sheer embarrassment of the situation is enough to make desi students everywhere wish we could have been “normal” by American standards. Explaining to your peers that you don’t worship a thousand gods like the Greeks; your grandmother doesn’t force you to bathe in dead people’s ashes every full moon; and even though you know how to bhangra, kuchipudi, or whatever it may be, you’ve never danced with a drag-queen, is not fun for any young desi.

But why do we put up with it? Jewish, African-American, and Orientals all have organizations against defamation and they are represented correctly in the textbooks. Why aren’t we? If Christians can effectively lobby to remove the theory of evolution from school science textbooks, then certainly we should be able to at least correct the blatant misinterpretation of our culture. Reading what you or your child’s Social Studies textbooks says on India and Hinduism and writing a simple letter or e-mail to the editor can make a world of difference for not only you but for thousands of others. A letter to the Board of Education for your district can’t hurt either, since they decide which textbooks will be used. It only takes five minutes of your time, but it can change how you, an Indian, are viewed in society.

Desis are being ridiculed everywhere in America because of what today’s modern student is learning. It’s not going to change unless we become part of the solution.


Request to the reader:

I request the reader to please carefully examine the diagram earlier in the essay. Schools are at the retail level of knowledge dissemination. Changing one school at a time would mean tens of thousands of campaigns. But if you go to the source of all this, it is the scholars who write with great authority, and their books then get used as references to write textbooks, encyclopedias, newspaper articles, television coverage, corporate policies on India, US foreign policy, and so forth.

If you want to change the dirty tap water, cleaning what comes out of each individual tap would be very inefficient. Going to the source of the town’s water supply and fixing the problem there would be far more efficient.


[1] October 31, 2003.

[2] October 30, 2003.

[3] Private email on October 30th.

[4] Private email on October 31.

[5] Private email on October 31.

[6] Private email on Nov 3rd.

[7] October 30, 2003.

[8] Abhinavgupta egroup on Oct 30th

[9] Private email on October 31.

[10] Private email on October 31.

[11] Private email on October 31.

[12] Private email on October 31.

[13] Private email on October 31.

[14] Private email on October 31.

[15] Private email on November 2nd.

[16] Private email on November 3rd.

[17] November 3rd.

[18] November 1st.

[19] November 1st.

[20] November 1st.

[21] November 2nd.

[22] November 2nd.

[23] November 2nd.

[24] November 3rd.

[25] On RISA-l on November 3rd.

[26] November 3rd.

[27] November 3rd.

[28] November 3rd.

[29] November 4th.

[30] November 4th.

[31] November 5th.

[32] Private email on November 5th.

[33] On RISA-l on November 5th.

[34] November 5th.

[35] November 5th.

[36] November 3rd.

[37] On November 3rd.

[38] November 3rd.

[39] Wendy’s Child Syndrome: http://www.sulekha.com/column.asp?cid=239156 and The Axis of Neocolonialism:

http://www.sulekha.com/column.asp?cid=218625 [40] November 5th.

[41] November 4th.

[42] November 6th.

[43] Unfortunately, family health issues might prevent my attendance.

[44] November 8th.

[45] For a balanced assessment of B. G. Tilak’s motivation in starting the public Ganesha festival see his biography by Dhananjay Keer.

[46] November 7th.

[47] “Asian Art in The Walters Art Gallery: A Selection,” by Hiram W. Woodward, Jr. Publisher: The Trustees of The Walters Art Gallery, 600 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201, p.20.

 Published: 2003