Wendy Doniger has bestowed a rather flippant interview in Outlook India on the eve of the release of her new book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The title is sufficiently pompous, entirely faithful to Wendy Doniger’s career as an Indologist. Aditi Banerjee responded with a comprehensive rejoinder that yet again demonstrated Wendy’s credentials as an honest scholar of Indology. Aditi’s almost line-by-line dissection of the interview makes a good, although old observation: a scholarly work should stand or fall on its own merit, and using victimhood both as a means to deflect valid criticism as well as to artificially inflate the value of scholarship is in poor taste. However, Wendy Doniger or her scholarship is not quite the problem. It is a syndrome of which she is the contemporary, and loudest representative.
But it is truly amazing how Doniger manages to brand even serious and erudite scholars who criticize her work as fanatics, Hindutva agents, right-wingers and BJP members. This form of branding is, unless I’m mistaken, a tactic perfected by the Communists: recall Lenin’s famous technique of “sticking the convict badge” on his opponents. Of course, I don’t imply that Doniger is a Communist but the tactic is eerily familiar.
Indology was flawed from the start
Wendy Doniger’s credentials are pretty hoary–with numerous seminars and papers and books and publications in scholarly journals to her credit. As an Indology expert and scholar, she has peer-reviewed other scholarly work but has consistently shown intolerance towards criticism of her work by (mostly) Indian scholars. As Rajiv Malhotra and others have shown on several occasions, this phenomenon owes to an imbalance in the academic narrative and is fundamentally about power.
The element of power dates back to the founding days where entire departments of Indology, Sanskrit, and Oriental studies were liberally funded by the British colonial administration. They were liberally funded because British imperialism needed these Indologists to interpret the local customs and laws that in turn helped them shape policies to rule over the natives (sic). Indologists were naturally obliged to keep their masters happy. From the time of William Jones, who is justifiably called the father of (modern) Indology right up to the likes of Wendy Doniger and Michael Witzel, the research, narrative, and interpretation was, unsurprisingly, colonial in both colour and flavour–Eurocentric, if you will. It was not so much from a spirit of free and objective inquiry that research in Indology progressed but more to meet political and missionary ends. This trend continues today where new scholarly papers and books are written with an express intent to “reinterpret” or provide an “alternative interpretation” of Indian mythology, the Vedas, Puranas, symbolism, sages, Gods, and Goddesses.
It is therefore no coincidence–or any sinister cabal at work–that almost all of these scholarly works meet with such intense criticism by not just scholars but by practicing Hindus. The answer to that is found in Aurobindo’s caution: in his time, he said that these [scholars] lacked the background necessary to properly read this largely spiritual literature [Vedas]. Aurobindo spoke on the authority of the native Indian tradition, which prescribes the prerequisites to understand and interpret these texts. In general, anybody who wants to write any commentary or similar work, especially on the Vedas should at the minimum know these Vedangas (literally, the limbs of the Vedas) apart from knowing the Vedas themselves:
- Shiksha : phonetics and phonology (sandhi)
- Chandas : meter
- Vyakarana: grammar
- Nirukta: etymology
- Jyotisha: astrology and astronomy, dealing particularly with the auspicious days for performing sacrifices.
- Kalpa: ritual
Every single work that is considered as authoritative today by Hindus stem from this tradition–from the three major schools and other work by later scholars demonstrate adherence to these prerequisites. Works by scholars in British-ruled India like Ananda Coomaraswamy, M.Hiriyanna, P.V. Kane, and Ramana Maharshi (who largely spoke through silence and in the oral tradition) contain the same strand of fidelity to this tradition. These prerequisites is also known in general as Adhikari bheda, which simply means that a student should first successfully complete all the previous courses before attempting to sit for an Engineering exam.
This lack of knowledge of these prerequisites is a highly notable feature of Western Indology. Their claim of scholarship and/or expertise in Indology rests almost wholly on their knowledge of Sanskrit. But as we’ve seen above, mere knowledge of the language of Sanskrit isn’t enough. It sometimes leads to rather laughable results:
Having established this similarity between bird song and mantra, the theory then takes off with a life of its own. There are vedic rituals for making rain and curing illness and similarly birds sing for building nests or attracting females; there are rituals and bird songs for various occasions. Then it was also found that bird sing – believe it or not – just for pleasure. So Staal extends the theory to say that, similar to skiing, dancing and music, mantras and rituals too are done for pleasure.
Between Staal’s athirathram in 1975 and Wood’s in 2006, one was held in 1990 near Thrissur which I attended for a day. This athirathram, which was extensively covered in Malayalam newspapers, was highly respectful and the words I heard were not “playful” or “pleasurable.” I can understand singing for pleasure, but am yet to meet a priest who said, “it’s a weekend and raining outside, let’s do a ganapati homam for pleasure.” [Ed: A highly recommended reading]
Besides, there’s an entire cultural, philosophical, and spiritual heritage that cannot be understood merely in theory and bookish learning–it requires living the tradition. Even their knowledge of Sanskrit is suspect–for someone who holds sufficiently intimidating titles such as Mircea Eliade Distinguished Professor of the History of Religions, it is rather shameful to commit such blunders:
According to Doniger, the concept of a “sex-addict” is introduced into the Valmiki Ramayana by Lakshmana calling Dasaratha kama-sakta, which she defines as “hopelessly attached to lust.”
It is not clear where Doniger picks up the term ‘kama-sakta‘-the term does not appear upon a search of the text of the Valmiki Ramayana as given in the Titus online database, which is based on the following version of the text: G.H. Bhatt e.a., The Valmiki Ramayana, (Baroda 1960-1975), prepared by Muneo Tokunaga, March 12, 1993 (adaptations by John D. Smith, Cambridge, 1995.)…I will give the benefit of the doubt to Doniger and assume that the term kama-sakta has been used by Lakshmana to describe Dasaratha in the Valmiki-Ramayana. That in and of itself does not imply that Dasaratha was “hopelessly addicted to lust.” Kama-sakta simply means an attachment (sakta) to desire (kama). Kamadoes not itself necessarily refer to sexual desire, or even erotic or romantic desire. Dasaratha’s reluctance to allow Rama to serve as guard over Vishwamitra’s yajna, for example, or Lakshmana’s unwillingness to be parted from Rama, could equally be characterized as kama-sakta. To assume it to mean “attachment to lust” is another in a pattern of Doniger’s ex-cathedra translations in variance with traditional Sanskrit nirukta (etymology) for which she has been repudiated before.
[Aside: For a more detailed treatment of her Sanskrit knowledge, this is a good place to head to.]
Which is also what propels them to look for things in the most unlikely places. For instance, Doniger looks for information about temple architecture/temple-building in the Kama Sutra instead of the vast corpus of the Pancharatra and Vaikhanasa Agamas!
She makes a superfluous reference to the fact that the Kama Sutra does not discuss temple worship-one wonders why the Kama Sutra would be a relevant reference for discussion of temple construction…
Contribution of Western Indology
Whatever the faults of Max Mueller and similar folks, they couldn’t be accused of this kind of shoddy, unreasonable, and distorted scholarship. Continuing the observation on Sanskrit, it is amazing that most of these Western Indologists/Sanskrit experts and scholars have never written anything in Sanskrit despite their praises for the language’s beauty, structure, and mathematical precision. We’re talking a period of roughly 100 years at the least. On the contrary, a single generation of English education produced an enormous body of original English prose, poetry, scholarly work, and other non-fiction work entirely written by Indians in an astonishingly short period. The same explanation holds true for this dichotomy: politics and balance of power. At least Max Mueller honestly admitted his lack of command over Sanskrit.
I am surprised at your familiarity with Sanskrit. We [Europeans] have to read but never to write Sanskrit. To you it seems as easy as English or Latin to us… We can admire all the more because we cannot rival, and I certainly was filled with admiration when I read but a few pages of your Sundara Charita. [Max Mueller’s letter to a Nepalese scholar and Sanskrit poet, Pandit Chavilal; undated but written probably around 1900.]
In terms of overall contribution, Western Indology has pathetic little to show when compared to Indian Indologists and scholars who not only studied the methodology but applied it effectively and accomplished far more. Even in a work like the Arthashastra, Shyama Sastri draws from an astonishing diversity of sources in his lengthy preface. In reality, today’s Western Indology is facing terminal, and irreversible decline. In the last three years, the Sanskrit Department at Cambridge University and the Berlin Institute of Indology, two of the oldest and prestigious Indology centers in the West have closed down. Other universities in Europe and the US share this fate: the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, once a respected leader in Oriental studies has cut down its Indology programs; the Sanskrit Department at Harvard, one of the oldest in the US is trimming its Sanskrit programs and has stopped its Summer program of teaching Sanskrit to foreign students. This partly explains why scholars like Wendy Doniger and Witzel are increasingly becoming aggressive. Majority of these universities no longer enjoy colonial funding, and the scholarship they produce is rarely seen outside their own academic circles.
In closing, Wendy Doniger is a classic illustration of what happens when somebody is confronted with a superior culture. The initial state of dumbfoundedness gives way to irrational hatred towards the thing that such a mind cannot comprehend. This was pretty much the reaction of Islam when it first set foot in India. Her incredible felicity for detecting only sex in everything that India has produced should qualify as the scholarly equivalent of the wonders of the world. Her refusal to engage her critics in debate and to tar them as fanatics and fundamentalists is the other side of the same coin. But she has been quite successful in creating an aura of trendiness around her books in the fashionable circles in urban India. Needless, secular magazines like Outlook lap her up with some glee because she has shown to be quite adept in the Art of Indian Secularism.
The fact that in an epic work of 24000 verses, which has stood the test of time, the only worthwhile thing she found was Rama and Sita’s sex life (as she imagines it) speaks eloquently about her own Alternate History.