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.

6 Responses

  1. Enjoyed the blog. Hope to return from time to time.

  2. You have been almost fair.

  3. Pretty balanced analysis, except for the one where you state that Malhotra is an apologist for his religion. I’ve read most of his articles and beg to differ from your view. If anything, he wants Hinduism and Indic studies to be portrayed in a positive, nay, the correct light.
    In fact, Hindus who shout that Hinduism is on par with Abrahamic creeds are apologists. I reiterate, Malhotra’s focus, I reckon is more on the proper portrayal of Hinduism in mainstream US University courses/studies, etc.

    As to nationalist Hindutva, I am more or less with Malhotra’s views. Going by its recent history (yes, about 80 years, at the most), this movement is largely reactionary: an eye-for-an-eye type of movement.

    Nice blog. Will come back for more.

  4. Nics – almost fair as everyone else said. Rajiv Malhotra is not an apologist. He is only attempting to right 3 centuries of lies spread by British and Muslim “scholars”. The national hymn/statement of India is ‘Satyameva Jayate’ – ‘Truth will Prevail’ _This was coined by Emperor Ashoka over 2000 years ago.

  5. First, thank you for a refreshingly balanced presentation.
    I was slightly confused by this statement however:

    ‘ The new article for Encarta was, it seems, written by Arvind Sharma, … although Doniger insists that: “I wrote it and someone named Sharma did not.” ‘

    Doniger had written the former entry for Hinduism, which Sanu deconstructed in the autumn of 2002, and which was eventually dropped by Encarta. The 2004 edition features a new article on Hinduism, written by Sharma:

    Towards the end of his critique, Sanu did bring up, among other things, the issue of ‘emic vs. etic,’ pointing out that the authors of both the Christianity and Islam articles were written by a practicing Christian (Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan) and a practicing Muslim (Prof. Ahmad Dallal), respectively, which may well account for Encarta’s far more sympathetic treatment of those two religions, as compared with the entry on Hinduism. He cited Pelikan’s defense of the emic viewpoint, included in his Encarta article on Christianity, and then mused, “while the topic of emic (insider) and etic (outsider) study is often debated within academia, we would expect Encarta to choose uniformly either the emic or etic view of the major religions.”

    Presumably on that basis, Doniger assumes that the sole criticism of her article was that its author was not Hindu and therefore not fit to speak about Hindu traditions and implies that its replacement had less to do with the merits of her analysis than xenophobia on the part of the Hindu community (from the Washington Post: “It does not matter whether the article published under my name was right or wrong,” [Doniger] said in an e-mail. “The only important thing about it was that I wrote it and someone named Sharma did not”).

    Having read through Sanu’s entire critique of Doniger’s article, I personally find her reaction rather disingenuous.

  6. I am happy to read a balanced analysis of the whole controversy.. Honestly, like many others I have not read Paul Courtright’s book on Ganesha. So I have no idea what he wrote. Unluckily, we [Hindus] have nobody to blame except ourselves….Most of the problems are our own [Hindus] making…We slept on the wheel for centuries. We allowed others to write our history. We allowed them and still allow them to define what Hinduism all about. Hindu theologians and writers should come out and discuss every aspect of Hinduism in market place. Most of the times, I only see screaming at things, not dealing with things very logically. Unless we [Hindus] do that others will always define for us [Hindus] what is Hinduism all about.
    Hindus should NOT, I repeat should NOT under any circumstance attack personalities who happened to write any false information. All of them are very nice people and they wrote as per the research. I do not think they have any ulterior motive in writing what they wrote. We have to respect them and never ridicule them. Only thing Hindus should do is to correct their statements in the media. We have confront the thought process that define Hinduism as a bizarre or ancient religion. Ignorance is the root cause of all evils. We should and We MUST eradicate ignorance about HINDU CULTURE among masses.

    Apathy on the part Hindus will only create doom for Hindus through out this world. Unluckily most Hindus are ignorant of their culture religion. So Hindus have to educate themselves first all about Hinduism and then teach others about every aspect of Hinduism. Hindus have nothing to fear except fear itself… By the way I am author of the international Best Seller AM I A HINDU? [ ] which is used many universities in US in their religious curriculum.

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