Academics Under Fire from Defender of Hinduism

The Washington Post reports on several controversies over Indian history and religion: James W. Laine’s book on the 17th century Hindu king Shivaji; Paul Courtright’s 1985 book on the god Ganesha, which waxes Freudian over his trunk; and Wendy Doniger’s alleged “eroticised” view of Hinduism. All three scholars have faced threats and, in Doniger’s case, a thrown egg. The article introduces “New Jersey entrepreneur” Rajiv Malhotra, who brought Courtright’s old book to the attention of Hindus, and “former Microsoft engineer” Sankrant Sanu, whose critique of Doniger’s entry on Hinduism in Encarta apparently led to the article being replaced.

Encarta has tinkered with its entries in the past to suit its audiences (giving differnt accounts of Waterloo for British and French readerships; asking genocide scholar Helen Fein and Armenian expert Ronald Grigor Suny to revise material disliked by the Turkish government), but Sanu’s deconstruction of Doniger’s article, in which he compares her approach with how other religious traditions are treated by Encarta, is actually very strong. The new article for Encarta was, it seems, written by Arvind Sharma, Birks Chair of Comparative Religion at McGill University and previously Infinity Foundation Visiting Professor of Indic Studies at Harvard University, although Doniger insists that: “I wrote it and someone named Sharma did not” (a perplexing point the Post does not elaborate on – Malhotra suggests that she means that her article was spiked because of her race, but the Post‘s wording is unclear).

The Infinity Foundation (formerly the Educational Council on Indic Traditions) was founded by Malhotra, and according to its website it exists “to promote East-West dialogue and a proper understanding of the Indian civilizational experience in the world, particularly in the United States and India”. In an interview, Malhotra argued that

The Buddhists have good scholars, themselves practising Buddhists, who teach the Buddhist religion…But Hinduism, Sikhism or Jainism are too often taught by Americans who themselves believe in other thought systems! This is even considered desirable in the name of ‘objectivity’, while the same arms-length rule does not apply to Christianity for instance, which is taught by Christians and even preachers.

A profile of the IF by Pankai Jain notes that it prefers “to be called an Indic think-tank, rather than a Hindu organization”, and concludes that:

From almost a one-man show, Rajiv Malhotra has succeeded in attracting many like-minded men and women as advisors to his foundation. The readership of the essays written by Rajiv Malhotra and many of the IF advisors on Sulekha [an e-zine] ranges into five figures. It is interesting to note how awareness about these issues has steadily increased with the Sulekha audience as evidenced by their comments; it is a sign of the growing intellectual impact of IF on the Indian diaspora. It is important to note that most of those readers are not related to IF except through reading on the Internet, and yet their views seem to resonate very well with the essays. One is left amazed to see a telecom entrepreneur constructing an influential Indic think-tank.

Malhotra has written numerous articles, in which he takes aim at Doniger’s scholarship and those who have been influenced by her. In response to his criticisms, Doniger tells the Post that

Malhotra’s ignorant writings have stirred up more passionate emotions in Internet subscribers who know even less than Malhotra does, who do not read books at all…And these people have reacted with violence. I therefore hold him indirectly responsible.

However, Malhotra can hardly be put in the same bracket as the Hindu nationalist Hindutva. Malhotra is on record as being against the Hindutva:

They have been devoid of rigorous scholarship and serious think tanks…There is often a certain crudeness in many of their leaders…They have a general disregard for complex arguments that don’t seem to deliver immediate payoffs. This issue is related to an overall anti-intellectualism that seems to have prevailed through much of the history of the RSS. This has made them intellectually inbred, and many of their people come across like sycophants. Their geriatric leaders are out of touch with today’s modernity, youth culture, and global perspective…VHP has no right to taint the name of Hinduism in making its choices, as though they were acting on behalf of all Hindus, whereas they did not even get elected by a majority of Hindus to represent them.

On the other hand, Malhotra is primarily an apologist for his religion, meaning he has a somewhat different perspective from, say, Edward Said or many other critics of Western scholarship of the east. Sulekha has provided right of reply to those he has attacked, and has published a defence of Doniger.

UPDATE (3 May): Malhotra has produced a strongly-worded response to the Post article.

PS – thanks to those who left comments. To clarify, I use the word “apologist” in a neutral sense. I suppose the word now has a popular nuance of “make excuses for” or “defend something that shouldn’t be defended”, which was not what I meant at all. What I meant was that Malhotra, like the late Edward Said, wants the main religious tradition of his original homeland to be treated accurately. However, unlike Said vis-a-vis Islam, Malhotra is an adherent of the religion he writes about, a positionality which should be remembered when reading his (often polemical) articles. But I take the point that he does not (to my knowledge) spend time writing articles about how his religion is “the truth”, which is the main activity of a religious apologist.