Representing Hinduism

Getting back to Amardeep Singh’s question to me — what do I think of the Doniger controversy (registration required, sorry)? — I’m ambivalent.

First, let me state unambiguously that I am not a scholar of comparative religion, nor am I an expert on Doniger’s work. Acquainted with both the field and Doniger; not an expert.

I’ve never been partial to Doniger’s theories of Hindusim; they seem to draw more heavily than I approve of on a psychological foundation for religion. That’s not to banish psychological elements from the study of religions; that would be foolish. But (without invoking the boogie-word “reductionism”), I sensed her to account for religious phenomena more resolutely in terms of psychology than I would.

So as far as dissenting from her scholarly position, I would sympathize. And I am not unsympathetic to complaints that she represents a Hinduism that Hindus wouldn’t recognize. Arguments that she “loves Hinduism” miss the point; I’ve known people to love Buddhism, for instance, on the basis of a tendentious and (to my mind) very misguided construal of what Buddhism is all about. Prof. Doniger — a very brilliant scholar — may well have fallen in love with her own sense of what Hinduism must be about, which Hinduism may well not gibe with the real devotion of real Hindus. I understand; I often feel that way about people’s representations of Christian faith.

As far as attacking her or Prof. Courtright of Emory, of course, that’s intolerable. If Doniger and Courtright are wrong, they should be rebutted, not attacked.

2 thoughts on “Representing Hinduism

  1. Found you via Ryan Overbey’s blog.

    I just wanted to point out that when academic work does “not gibe with the real devotion of real Hindus” or “represent a Hinduism that Hindus wouldn’t recognize,” that doesn’t mean it’s an inaccurate representation. Doniger, after all, studies myths, many of which are a thousand years old or more. It wouldn’t be surprising if they had changed so much in a thousand years that modern practitioners couldn’t recognize them. Several scholars of nineteenth-century India, in particular, have noticed a strong tendency to “sweeten” various traditions, especially Tantra – to make them less sexual and less frightening. Doniger’s student Jeff Kripal wrote and published his controversial work Kali’s Child, on Ramakrishna, in part because modern Ramakrishna devotees wouldn’t recognize it – he saw something valuable in the historical Ramakrishna which the current tradition doesn’t get.

    Neither is this just about history vs. the present. A typical medieval Italian peasant would surely not have recognized himself in the work of Thomas Aquinas, but Aquinas’s work is no less worth studying for that.

    Posted by: Amod Lele at April 15, 2004 09:59 AM

  2. First, I of course agree that threats of violence–rhetorical as well as literal–and violence itself have no place in any sort of argument.

    What follows is a long post, and amounts to simply a statement of my position on this issue:

    It seems to me that the central question is not whose feelings are hurt. Rather, the question really is whose ‘take’ on Hindu practices/beliefs is accurate. Is
    Dr. Doniger’s psychoanalytic take on Hindusim or her unfavorable view of the BG correct ?

    Although there are many Hindus–certainly I count myself among them–who find Dr. Doniger’s work offensive, we do not argue that it ought to be banned or censored. Rather, we are offended precisely because we think it an inaccurate depiction of our practices. And note that when I say ‘our’, I am not limiting myself to the 19th/20th/21st centuries: I think that Dr. Doniger’s reliance on psychoanalysis isn’t likely to be fruitful for many other periods of Hindu history.

    All we ask is that those who disagree with Dr. Doniger be allowed a place in the academy to rebut her (Of course, let me note that here ‘Dr. Doniger’ is a stand-in for many–not all–academics who think ‘about’ Hinduism, to use the old phrase).

    Unlike so many trained in the Western discipline of religious study, I don’t think that this discipine is wholly scientific/objective. Certainly (major) parts of it are (e.g, IE linguistics, etc.)but parts of it aren’t (e.g, psychoanalytic approaches to religion). It is precisely when religious studies academics–necessarily–step outside such scholarly areas that they cease being objective scholars and turn into ‘theologians’ (gasp!) like the rest of us.

    Following P. Griffiths, I too think that there is no objective reason to exclude one group of ‘theologians’ (here Hindus or non-Hindus who wish to think with Hinduism when doing religious studies work)from the Western academy, while allowing another group free reign (i.e.,
    Hindu or non-Hindu religious studies academics who think about Hinduism).

    Posted by: kumar at April 15, 2004 03:46 PM

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