Wendy Doniger: Playing the race & sex card


Check out this Guardian article from 2012, by a so-called Christian priest, Paul Oestreicher, suggesting that Jesus was gay, based on misreading the word for love in the text of St. John (which is agape, or spiritual love, not eros, or erotic love).

Please note, I’m not demonizing gays here. My point is that these sorts of readings seemed to be based on obvious misinterpretation of the original text, and point to a consistent agenda.

Just as Doniger claims to be “HIndu,” Oestreicher claims to be “Christian,” yet both are inserting extraordinarily idiosyncratic and unsupported readings to impose a view that the objects of Christian and Hindu veneration are homosexual (and in the case of Hinduism, pedophilic).

Make sure to read through the comments at the bottom of this idiotic Guardian article to see that the majority of readers see through this kind of nonsense.

Aditi Banerjee, Oh You Do Get It Wrong, Outlook India,  October 28, 2009

[Note: Outlook India is a left-liberal outlet and the author of this trenchant critique of Wendy Doniger is not a Hindu fundamentalist but a Yale-trained lawyer.]

Note that while professing to be extremely sympathetic to Hinduism, Doniger, the most influential scholar in the field in the West, lacks first-rate facility in the languages she needs – Sanskrit and Tamil – for original interpretation and instead relies on her command of Latin and Greek to read secondary sources, and that too in a misleading way. ]

Wendy Doniger (Mircea Eliade Distinguished Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School and in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago) was recently interviewed in Outlook with reference to her new book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.  In the interview, she (1) falsely and unfairly brands all of her critics as right-wing Hindutva fundamentalists, and (2) grossly mischaracterizes (and misquotes) the text of the Valmiki Ramayana, calling into question her “alternative” version not just of the Ramayana, but also of Hinduism and Hindu history as a whole……..

Defamation of Critics

The introduction to the interview begins with a misleading quote:

“[Doniger] has continued to infuriate the Hindutva brigade with her unorthodox views on Hinduism and its sacred texts, earning for herself the epithet: “crude, lewd and very rude in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit academics.””

The quote implicitly attributed to the “Hindutva brigade” is actually from the BBC web site:

    Professor Wendy Doniger is known for being rude, crude and very lewd in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit Academics. All her special works have revolved around the subject of sex in Sanskrit texts ranging from Siva: The Erotic Ascetic to Tales of Sex and Violence…Never one to shy away from sex, she threw herself into the job of translating the [Kama Sutra] … She was particularly interested by the parts that justify adultery and the list of ways to get rid of a man … When she was translating it (over a period of a few years and numerous Sanskrit classes), she frequently found herself having to take cold showers. [1]

The misleading use of this quote sets the tone for the rest of the interview —heaping blame on a nebulous, undefined, straw man “Hindutva Internet Brigade” for the whole continuum of criticism of Doniger’s work—criticism that has come mostly from moderate and liberal Hindus, secularists, non-Hindu scholars and even one prominent Harvard Indologist who is not known for being friendly towards Hindus.  Rather than confront the actual criticisms, Doniger pretends that her only critics are Hindu extremists, and by rebuking this “enemy” she tries to deflect any criticism of her work.

Just as some politicians resort to picking on their weakest critic to discredit all of their critics, Doniger picks one stray comment on the Amazon web site to characterize all of her critics—when asked to describe the Hindu-American response to her book, Doniger exclaims, “My favourite one on Amazon accuses me of being a Christian fundamentalist and my book a defenxe of Christianity against Hinduism. And of course, I’m not a Christian, I’m a Jew!”

It is totally irresponsible for such a prominent professor, whose career is built on writing about Hinduism, to stereotype and vilify the entire Hindu-American community on the basis of the actions of a few.

Doniger’s refusal to address her critics only worsens as the interview proceeds.  When asked why Hindus object to her writings, she flippantly replies:

    You’ll have to ask them why. It doesn’t seem to me to have much to do with the book. They don’t say, “Look here, you said this on page 200, and that’s a terrible thing to say.” Instead, they say things not related to the book: you hate Hindus, you are sex-obsessed, you don’t know anything about the Hindus, you got it all wrong.

This is a bald lie. The first Part of the book, Invading the Sacred, documents and refutes dozens of statements by Doniger, as illustrated by the following:

  • “Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.”  (from Doniger’s article about Hinduism in the Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia—Microsoft Encarta subsequently removed her entry in 2004; while we do not know this for a fact, one can reasonably conclude that Microsoft Encarta came to an internal conclusion about Doniger’s lack of scholarship and objectivity).
  • From a newspaper article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated November 19, 2000, entitled “Big-screen caddy is Hindu hero in disguise” written by David O’Reilly, Inquirer Staff Writer:
    “Myth scholar Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago was on hand earlier this month to lecture on the Gita.  The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think,” she said, in a lecture titled “The Complicity of God in the Destruction of the Human Race.” “Throughout the Mahabharata, the enormous Hindu epic of which the Gita is a small part, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war in order to relieve “mother Earth” of its burdensome human population and the many demons disguised as humans … The Gita is a dishonest book; it justifies war,” Doniger told the audience of about 150” (emphasis added).

    Doniger may now claim that she was misquoted, but she has failed to obtain a retraction from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Prof. Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University posted the following remarks about Doniger’s translations to a mailing list and called her translations “UNREALIABLE” [sic] and “idiosyncratic:”
  • Doniger’s “rendering of even the first two paadas [of the Rg Veda] is more of a paraphrase than a translation;”
  • “In this hymn (of 18 stanzas) alone I have counted 43 instances which are wrong or where others would easily disagree.”
  • “Note that all 3 translations are Re-translations. Mistakes of the type mentioned above could easily have been avoided if the work of our 19th century predecessors (and contemporaries!) had been consulted more carefully … Last point: Looking at the various new translations that have appeared in the past decade or so: Why always to Re-translate something done ‘several’ times over already — and why not to take up one of the zillion Un-translated Skt. texts?” [2]

Is that specific enough?

Nor can Doniger claim ignorance of these examples, having been made aware of them through emails, various conferences, journals and mailing lists by many people, including university professors, fellow scholars, and students.

As a scapegoat tactic to discredit her critics, Doniger plays both the sex card and the race card, without offering any evidence for being discriminated against on the grounds of her gender or her race:

    I think I have a double disadvantage among the Hindutva types.  One is that I’m not a Hindu and the other is that I am not a male.  I suppose the third is that I’m not a Brahmin, but I don’t even get there because I’m not a Hindu.   I think it’s considered unseemly in the conservative Hindu view for a woman to talk about sex—that’s something men talk about among themselves (emphasis added).

But her critics have been concerned not with her gender or race but only with the content of her scholarship.  Race and sex bias are the “cards” Doniger uses to distract readers who are unfamiliar with the details of the substance of the critiques against her.

Hindu society acknowledges and celebrates any genuine scholars of Hinduism, irrespective of their gender, race or caste.  For example, the late Sir John Woodroffe / Arthur Avalon is regarded by even the most traditional and orthodox of Hindu acharyas, including the late Shankaracharya of Sringeri, as one of the great Tantric scholars of modern times—despite his being neither Hindu nor Brahmin-born.  In addition, Dr. Klaus Klostermaier, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba (Canada), is highly respected in Hindu circles. Linda Johnsen, neither male, Hindu, nor Brahmin-born, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism (2002) among several other books, is also highly regarded for her knowledge about Hinduism.

This respect is not just academic—non-Indian spiritual gurus have been revered by Hindus as well.  Daya Mata (Faye Wright), another female, non-Hindu, non-Brahmin (by birth) of the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) was highly regarded by the most traditional and orthodox of Hindu leaders, including (I have been told) the late Shankaracharya of Sringeri, a great scholar and authority on Hinduism. Similarly, Sister Nivedita (Margaret Elizabeth Noble), female, non-Hindu, non Brahmin-born, perhaps the most prominent of Swami Vivekananda’s disciples, has been revered as a true Hindu saint by many orthodox Hindus, including Brahmins; so also has Mother (Mira Alfassa), the Frenchwoman closely associated with (and successor to) Sri Aurobindo.  I could go on with a list of lesser known women of foreign birth who are equally acknowledged as true representatives of Hinduism.  I have not even touched upon the scores of Indian women who have been revered by Hindus from the Vedic times to the modern day—e.g., Gargi, whose open debate with the great sage Yajnavalkya is prominently featured in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad.

Moreover, the idea that “it’s considered unseemly in the conservative Hindu view for a woman to talk about sex–that’s something men talk about among themselves” is another blatantly false stereotype by Doniger……...

There is also the celebrated account given in the Yoga Vasistha of Queen Chudalai, an advanced yogini, who initiates her husband, King Sikhidvaja, as her disciple; she tests his renunciation repeatedly and instructs him on the proper attitude towards sexual union and sensual pleasure…..

As these examples show, not only were women allowed to discuss sex, they had the authority and scriptural and social standing to challenge and teach the greatest of sages and the most royal of men with respect to all subject matters, including sex and eroticism……..

“In a personal context, I can say unequivocally that despite my birth and upbringing as an American and my liberal schooling in Boston and at Yale Law School, my most honest and open discussions of sex have been with the most orthodox and “traditional” of Hindu swamis and acharyas.  They helped me unlearn the associative guilt and sexual repression of Western mores.  They also taught me that sexual desire is, in the appropriate context, an integral part of life and that there is nothing sinful  or shameful about it, and that heightened sexual energies are not antithetical to, but can be an integral part of, spiritual development for people qualified (adhikaris) for those types of sadhana or spiritual practice.

In short, playing this race and sex card may be an attempt by Doniger to elicit sympathy—but this cannot substitute for sound scholarship.  In the traditions of true academic scholarship, Doniger should let her work stand or fall on its own merits and not hide behind false victimhood. ”

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