Is There Such a Thing as Hindu Fundamentalism?

Roundup: Talking About History

Martin E. Marty, in his weekly newsletter, Sightings (May 10, 2004):

On December 27, 1986 Arthur Hertzberg, Yvonne Haddad, and I were asked by the American Historical Association (AHA) to lead a plenary session on militant fundamentalisms in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  That was the first time I dealt with the subject.  Later, a six-year study for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences would prepare me for a topic that remains too relevant, even urgent, today.

The AHA asked my colleague Wendy Doniger to respond to all three, from the viewpoint of a scholar of Hinduism.  Could Hinduism even have fundamentalisms, she asked.  As she explored and observed how leaders of radical Hindu movements handled sacred texts, she changed her mind, and commented wisely.

Now she and her students and friends in America, India, and around the globe are seeing militant Hinduism up close.  Shuttling as I did between Chicago and Emory this year (18 commutes to date), I had occasion to track one of these"up-close" stories, that of Paul Courtright. 

Courtright's scholarly book,
Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, went unnoticed except in specialized academic circles since it was published in 1985.  Then some militants were stirred to be critical of it, rejecting the psychoanalytic elements in Courtright's analysis of a Hindu god with the head of an elephant.  While a few are themselves scholars, most of the roused attackers lack context and understanding.  Courtright and other experts have had death threats, while others know that persecution or exclusion from India could await them.

Doniger has not escaped completely.  She had to duck an egg thrown by a militant Hindu as she lectured in London.  In the world of these scholars, writing about gods from some scholarly distance is a century old practice.  As for the psychoanalytic aspects in
Ganesa, Freudians and post-Freudians have had their rounds with Moses, Paul, Christians, and Jews through the ages, without having to duck eggs, harassment, or death threats.

What is going on?  So far as I can tell, we have here an international instance of hyper-multiculturalism, an approach to learning now being moderated in America.  Its original proponents held that only those who were"of" a people, whose ancestors shared an experience, etc., could teach and write about them and it.  In their prime, multiculturalist expressions blighted tenure decisions, led to negative reviews, and probably harmed some careers.  Today we are learning again that, while heirs of a tradition have a special claim on stories and interpretations, at least at certain stages, good stories are too good to be hoarded by those who claim insider-status.  All great literature, canonical or not, is born of particular experiences, and if it
is great, it gets shared.

That was happening with Hindu mythology, but for the moment the eggs and threats fly and the barriers are up.  This can wreak havoc in religious studies and interfaith understanding, and one can only hope that light will spread and cooler heads will prevail.  Doniger says it is all being"fueled by a fanatical nationalism and Hindutva," where"no one who is not a Hindu has the right to speak about Hinduism at all." 

"Wendy," down the hall from me for many years, had and has a love affair with India and Hinduism.  She, Courtright, and others should outlast the militants.  Otherwise Hindu scholarship will suffer for decades to come.  If this happens, some of the best public relations agents for the religions of India will be under a cloud and it will be a bit darker for all of us -- including those who attack scholars who do not have the right blood line or geographical context.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Mary Hicks - 4/18/2005

In response to this article, Sankrant Sanu has an article in BeliefNet
on the shoddy scholarship by some eminent scholars. (Thanks, Varnam)

"People who question the quality of their research are immediately branded as Hindu Militants, BJP Activists etc and thus taking the discussion away from the quality of scholarship. As Sanu writes

Critical articles, including my own, raise the issue of the quality of scholarship of some of these prominent members of the academy. These articles have pointed out errors, inconsistencies, mistranslations, missing references, suspect theories and interpretative techniques and, in some cases, troubling evidence of outright prejudice displayed by the academicians.

Let's look at what happened when the Hindu community tried to address Courtright's work. Serious questions have been raised about the book--such as the non-existence of the references that Coutright cites in some cases, and their clear misconstrual in others.

While Doniger et al make exaggerated claims of violence based on ducking a stray egg, the real issue they have been ducking is that of shoddy scholarship. They charge that their critics do not read books, yet it is these academicians who haven?t bothered to read their critics. Perhaps they don?t need to. It is easier to remain ensconced in an ivory tower and make sure that the airwaves carry only the story of the scholars being ?attacked.? The alternative would be to engage in dialogue with the community who find their traditions unrecognizably mauled at their hands rather than talking past them, as Marty does, by caricaturing all criticism as ?fundamentalist? and ?militant.? This engagement can only help all those that genuinely care to see the academy as a place for the dissemination of knowledge, rather than of one-sided propaganda ... "