As I write this, I am surrounded by bookshelves full of English translations of the Puranas and the Dharma Shastras. In my puja room are texts of stotras and pujas that I am eager to learn but have not yet touched. A few blocks away, at the local Hindu Center, a Bhagavat Katha is taking place. Similarly, for the past several months, as I became involved in co-editing the book, Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America, papers I had planned to write--on Hindu models of feminism and narratives of my recent pilgrimages in India--went unwritten.
In an ideal world, I would have preferred any of those activities to this type of writing; but if I had to do it all over again, I would still have chosen to work on Invading the Sacred. The simple reason is that I believe now, as I did then, that not just as a Hindu, but as one who is committed to the objectives of true pluralism and multiculturalism, a deeper understanding of the issues raised by this book is critical to achieving those goals.
This essay is the story of why I became involved with co-editing Invading the Sacred, a book that analyzes the representation of Hinduism in American academia and the ensuing and ongoing politics when such representations are challenged both by the Indian diaspora as well as by academicians, and what this book means to me.
Three Vignettes--Personal Experiences of Hinduphobia
When I was in high school, my American History teacher, for no discernible reason, read to the class a newspaper clipping about an airplane that had accidentally landed in a remote Indian coastal village. The article described how the villagers rushed to garland the plane and pilot. The students (and my teacher) uproariously laughed at the apparent ignorance of these villagers who mistook an ordinary airplane and pilot for gods. At that age, I did not have the words or the wherewithal to explain to them that Hindus honor anything and anyone that enters their home for the first time. It is customary for Hindus to garland honoured guests, for example, or to place a dot of vermilion powder on new purchases. This does not mean we regard these objects or persons necessarily as God; rather, such gestures express our gratitude and respect for them as well as for the Divine who has brought them to us.
In college, I was exposed to Jeffrey Kripal's "theory" of Sri Ramakrishna as a homosexual who had homoerotic feelings about (and possibly abused) Swami Vivekananda. It was presented to me not as speculation but as an academically established and authoritative truth. All my life, I had looked upon Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda as holy saints who had revived Hinduism during colonial rule in India. I had a picture of Sri Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi to which I daily offered aarti, and I eagerly read Swami Vivekananda's complete works--one of the few compilations on Hinduism widely available in English that is written from a Hindu perspective. They had been my portal to Hinduism, but I felt shaken by these academic allegations. Instinctively, I knew such claims were baseless, and yet, these claims were made and vouched for by bona fide professors with Ivy League credentials, so they could not be completely wrong. Could they?
Shortly before I began practicing law, my guru advised me to begin wearing a bindi every day--not the stick-on kind but actual kumkum mixed with water. I was pleased to adopt this practice, as the bindi is a mark of auspiciousness and acts as a protective shield for the spiritual center of the body, the third eye (ajna chakra). While some family members and friends warned me that others, especially my colleagues, may frown upon wearing such a mark, I had experienced and believed in the open-minded acceptance of my American peers. However, I then came across Prof. David Gordon White's book, Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex in its South Asian Context, in which he remarks that the bindi a Hindu woman wears represents a drop of menstrual blood.
I grew apprehensive about wearing the bindi to work--would others mistakenly see it as some primitive, (literally) bloodthirsty rite? Still, I have followed my guru's instruction and wear the bindi every day, and I have never regretted it. I do wonder sometimes, though, when catching the surreptitious curious stares of others, what exactly they think when they see the red oval between my eyebrows, and whether that perception has been shaped by the speculation of 'renowned' scholars such as White.
Because I have faced this Hinduphobia, which often shows itself in the subtlest of ways, because I have seen my friends and peers suffer from similar experiences, and because we have never had the voice or the ammunition with which to fire back--with which to say that this is wrong, not because it is offensive or politically incorrect, but because it is baseless and untruthful--because of all this, I could not say 'no' when the opportunity arose to become involved with this book. For, what starts in American universities does not remain there--it spreads globally, percolates through to mainstream culture, to primary and secondary schools, and to the way ordinary citizens interact with and react to each other.
This Hinduphobia acts as a poison; with its spread, it is no longer possible to undertake the projects I really wanted to pursue, those listed at the beginning of this essay. When Hinduism has been projected to represent only the grotesque and sexualised in academia, no serious study of our Dharma Shastras within the academic system is easy; when our modern acharyas and gurus are demonised, an entire generation of budding scholars is too embarrassed to independently engage with their works; and when our most cherished deities and practices are exoticised or sensationalised, we are tempted to abandon those traditions and forms of worship that make us Hindu.
The scholarship at issue here is a pattern of Freudian psychoanalyses that sensationalise, eroticise, exoticise and distort the meanings of sacred Hindu figures, deities, and traditions. Invading the Sacred analyses several case studies of such Freudian interpretations. Here are some illustrative examples:
Prof. Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Professor of History and Religion, University of Chicago; Past President of American Academy of Religion and Association for Asian Studies; award-winning author of numerous books on Hinduism:
Jeffrey Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. [From Kali's Child, which won the Best Book Award from the American Academy of Religion and was listed by Encyclopedia Britannica as its top choice for learning about Sri Ramakrishna:]
Prof. Paul Courtright, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies and Former Chair of the Department of Religion and of Asian Studies at Emory University. [From Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, which won the History of Religions award from the American Academy of Religion:]
These works are objectionable not because they are offensive per se, but because they are based on flimsy, unsubstantiated, and often non-existent evidence. Such failings have been pointed out by fellow academics (many of whom have no association with Hinduism or India), but their challenges have gone unanswered. Doniger never responded to Michael Witzel's critique of her Sanskrit translations that are described in the book. (Witzel, one of the leading Sanskrit scholars in the U.S., has stated that Doniger's translations are so riddled with mistakes that they are unreliable and that she would have been better off adding her Freudian gloss to older translations.) Courtright has refused to debate with or even address those who have compiled overwhelming textual evidence to rebut his claims. Neither they nor Prof. Kripal have addressed critiques by several prominent professors from the field of psychology and psychoanalysis that their works are based on discredited methodologies. These detailed scholarly critiques, among others, have been reprinted and/or summarised in our book.
Doniger et al. do not defend themselves by defending their theses--that would be too embarrassing. Instead, as we also show in our book, they simply decry their critics as being fundamentalist or childishly emotional, and they hide behind the fig leaf of 'academic freedom.'
The first question that most people ask after reading substantive critiques of such 'scholarship' presented in our book is, "Why?" Why does this coterie of scholars produce work that is academically suspect by their own standards, that insists on sexualising and sensationalising the sacred, and that is so at odds with what Hindus know to be true about their own traditions? The second question usually is, "Why is there such a discrepancy between the American academic treatment of Hinduism and that of other religions?" (A more detailed study of this issue can be found in the book, where we reprint an article by Sankrant Sanu on the discriminatory treatment doled out to Hinduism vis-à-vis other religions in the previous edition of the Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia.). We note that even when criticisms are leveled at other religions, they are overwhelmingly balanced out by more positive depictions by emic (internal to the tradition) practitioners of those faiths. The ratio of emic (insider) to etic (outsider) scholars in the academic study of religions in American universities today is much higher in virtually all other religions than in Hinduism.
More importantly, some scholars appear to feel entitled to take a certain political and intellectual license with respect to Hinduism that they would not take with respect to other religions. For example, White's book on Tantra, Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex in its South Asian Context, only deconstructs Hindu Tantra but does not address the Vamachara Tantra of Buddhism, which is arguably more prominent today than Hindu Tantra. Proving the politicisation of such scholarship, our book notes that in her review of White's book, Doniger raises serious criticisms of the lack of evidence behind White's thesis but then goes on to say that Kiss of the Yogini "has a political importance that eclipses reservations of this kind … In arguing for the sexual meaning of the texts, White is flying in the face of the revisionist Hindu hermeneutic tradition that began in the eleventh century, was favored by Hindus educated in the British tradition from the nineteenth century onwards, and prevails in India today." . In other words, according to Doniger, whether or not White's claims are accurate, his political ends justify his questionable academic means.
In order to understand what drives such scholarship, we need to view this phenomenon, which we call academic Hinduphobia, not as isolated incidents of excess and error but as part of a larger trend that has spanned many decades and many disciplines. As we show in our book, not much has changed in this field of scholarship from Berkeley-Hill's 1921 essay, The Anal-Erotic Factor in the Religion, Philosophy and Character of the Hindus, positing that Hindu reverence for Agni, Indra and Surya evidenced a fascination for passing gas, as these deities are associated with passing enormous amounts of wind, that Vedic chants emulated the act of passing gas, and that 'Atman' was really a pseudo-metaphysical façade for the Hindu "flatus complex." Today, such a reading is echoed by David Gordon White's reduction of Tantra to an upper-caste "intellectual whitewash" of lower-caste sexual practices wherein sacred Hindu mantras are nothing more than "nonsense syllables" from the "inarticulate moans" made during sexual intercourse. This scholarship is not the product of a few idle (and perhaps disturbed) minds but rather a narrative driven by deeply embedded historical and institutional paradigms.
An analogy can be drawn to what in American tax law is called a 'sham' transaction. This refers to transactions by businesses that may technically meet all of the provisions of the tax law--e.g., if a corporation is required to be a resident of a particular country, the corporation will set up a proper mailbox there--but that have no substantive 'business purpose.' In other words, such a transaction is a fraudulent scheme, driven by tax avoidance rather than economic substance, dressed up to look like a legitimate business transaction. Such 'sham' transactions are outlawed as being fraudulent.
Similarly, we see in the scholarly works investigated in this book a pattern of speculative claims that are dressed up to look like bona fide scholarship but that have no academic substance. As 'sham' transactions are driven forth by fraudulent motives of tax avoidance, we query whether this 'sham' scholarship is driven forth by ulterior political motivations.
Scholarship should be driven by genuine truth-seeking and not by politically-motivated speculation. The standards of objectivity and professional "best practices" of research guidelines, procedures and methodologies should be implemented, independently monitored, and be inclusive of all parties with a stake in the intellectual, philosophical, and cultural capital of their traditions. Just as we have external watchdogs for the medical profession, for the media, and for the government, surely, it is not unprecedented for independent observers to act as watchdogs for the academic humanities profession. It has become obvious that peer-review is inadequate in certain circumstances, just as the self-policing of the legal, medical, and business professions has been found lacking in areas and has been supplemented by external monitoring.
In order to understand the agendas driving forth this 'sham' scholarship, we have to understand how such scholarship is deployed. It is being used not to criticise some fringe elements of Hindu thought or practice but rather to undermine Hinduism itself.
This assault upon the very foundations of Hinduism is also reflected in Doniger's insinuation (in her now rejected Microsoft Encarta entry on Hinduism) that the system of yoga was appropriated by Vedic society from the indigenous (read, non-Hindu) inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. This claim is echoed by the American Yoga Association: "There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism; on the contrary, Hinduism's religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some of the practices of Yoga. (Other religions throughout the world have also incorporated practices and ideas related to Yoga.)" 
Essentially, a coterie of scholars is targeting that which is most sacred and renowned in Hinduism--the Bhagavad Gita, bhakti, yoga, deities such as Sri Ganesha, Shiva, and Devi, spiritual leaders like Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda--and deconstructing them either as being pathological or as not really being Hindu at all. This is the invasion of the sacred--the looting of a living religion, an entire spiritual and cultural tradition, by denigration and appropriation.
As we explain in our book, this invasion of the Hindu sacred is driven by a complex set of factors, one of which is the playing out of the Frontier Myth, a doctrine deeply rooted in American mythology and history that drives how the American academic establishment and mainstream media interact with and react to minority cultures. The Myth holds that America's mission, entrusted by Providence, is to constantly expand Eden or Civilization (the secular equivalent of Eden) by conquering and colonising the wild Frontier, which has been inhabited at different times by various minority cultures, such as Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, and now Asian Indians. In the intellectual space, the Hindu frontier is one of the last frontiers that the Western mind is keen to penetrate in its cultural and intellectual imperialist quest.
Hinduism has become a targeted frontier because of its unique status. It is the last of the truly indigenous religions, one that has sprung forth from the land and not been supplanted by alien faiths. (Most of the other indigenous religions of the world have either been decimated or driven to the brink of extinction by colonising forces.) Among the major world religions, Hinduism is perhaps the most incompatible with Western religious frameworks. By far the oldest living religion in the world, Hinduism has been the source of the Dharmic traditions, as Judaism has been the source of the Abrahamic religions; however, it has developed along a tract distinct from that of the Semitic faiths. The core concepts of Sanatana Dharma do not translate into Abrahamic terms--dharma, karma, moksha, and yoga have no English equivalents. Yet, it continues to flourish with almost a billion adherents; it has not abandoned its rich pantheon of an infinite variety of forms and manifestations of Ishwara; from time immemorial, it has worshipped and revered Shakti, the female divine; it has not yielded to Islamic conquest or Christian conversion; and it has not obligingly morphed itself to adapt to Western paradigms. Thus, Hinduism stands apart, and in this light, may pose the most serious challenge to Western intellectual and philosophical hegemony today.
It is in the face of such a threat that this brand of scholarship seeks to either denigrate or appropriate from Hinduism its crown jewels of sacred philosophy, icons and practices. This school of academicians has constructed a narrative--one, as documented in this book, deployed to affect government policy and mainstream media representations of Hinduism--that tells a compelling story to the public and to those in power. This tactic has been used many times over in American, and more generally Western, history to demonise minority cultures in order to justify their destruction.
The story they have cleverly created about Hinduism goes something like this: Hindus were too occupied with earthy pleasures and pursuits to develop an authentic spiritual and philosophical tradition of their own; therefore, whatever Hindus find valuable in modern day Hinduism has either been imported from elsewhere or conceals something pathological that can only be exposed through Freudian psychoanalysis. Thus, for example, it was the obsession with lower-caste sexual rites that led to the development of Tantra; it was the castration anxiety of men that evolved into worship of Devi, 'the mother with a penis;'  it was homoerotic fantasies that led to the mystical experiences of Sri Ramakrishna; it was the emasculation complex, again, of Hindu men that led to Hindu renaissance movements led by, for example, Swami Vivekananda, and so forth. Thus, the story goes, it is quite unsurprising that Hindus were never able to formulate high philosophy or a consistent framework of values--such religious and cultural necessities had to be borrowed from other religions (i.e., karma and the values of the Bhagavad Gita from Buddhism) or from those whom the Hindus marginalised (i.e., yoga from the 'indigenous' Indus civilization; Tantra from oppressed lower castes). The unsaid but underlying premise is that Hindus never had the wherewithal or interest to develop a metaphysics or philosophy of their own. But, of course; they were too busy passing gas and chanting about it to do anything else.
That is the story this cartel of scholars persists in telling, and it is a clever one, one that conveniently reduces Hinduism to an elitist doctrine interested only in the exploitation of others and various anal-penile-erotic fetishes.
Here is our own story: We, too, believe that Sanatana Dharma is unique. It is the source from which arose the great traditions of Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. It is the oldest major world religion based on realisation, not revelation. Hinduism evolved from the collective experiences of its mystics, its yogis, its lovers of God. Originating from experience, from realisation, and not revealed dogma, Hinduism developed as a grassroots movement that swelled upwards and was never externally organised, because it never required an institutional framework to give it shape or consistent meaning. It is the only major extant religious tradition in which the feminine divine, Shakti, is revered and worshipped; in which the sublimation of the physical through the practices of Tantra holds equal footing as a mode of sadhana (spiritual practice) with the ascetism of yoga; in which the sweet outpouring of passionate love in bhakti is tempered by the most clinical, subtle and intricate of monistic philosophies (Advaita Vedanta).
As such, Hinduism is a unique religion and, given the history of similar native religious traditions, one that is under severe attack. Through the invasions of its sacred, both in the physical realm through the historical colonisation of India and in the intellectual and cultural realms through ongoing Eurocentric scholarship, its philosophical, cultural and spiritual capital has been and continues to be plundered and appropriated.
Therefore, we believe that scholarship regarding Hinduism deserves special scrutiny and sensitivity. Our critics falsely claim that we are engaged in academic censorship. In fact, we do not seek to silence the voices of those we critique--we only ask that other voices be added to their ongoing discourse about Hinduism. We believe that outsider perspectives do offer value in understanding any religion, including Hinduism, but that emic or insider perspectives are just as vital and valuable. With respect to, for example, Sri Ganesha, it is only logical to conclude that the insights of one who has lived with and loved Sri Ganesha, one who has worshipped Him, who through invocations of and meditation upon Him, has experienced Him as only a devotee can, would contribute to genuine understanding and knowledge of Him. If such voices are not respected by the academy, then the American academic establishment is adopting the elitist Brahmanism it claims to despise. It is silencing the underrepresented voices of those whom the academic establishment has consistently denigrated and misrepresented.
We are often told to relinquish this battle, told that the academy is of little significance, that this is a battle that is not worth fighting. Yet, if we take a moment to see the history of how we ended up here, we see that the British destroyed our traditional educational systems like the gurukula system, the traditional way in which knowledge about Hinduism has been transmitted for thousands of years. Because the infrastructure for producing our own home team of Hindu scholars has been destroyed, we are at a serious disadvantage in producing indigenous Hindu scholarship independent of the Western academic system. Any current initiatives to promote traditional Hindu forms of education are immediately derailed as being fundamentalist Hindutva. And when budding Hindu scholars do try to enter academia, the process is so politicised, that they either have to buy into existing academic dogma or else face a doomed academic career. In the process, entire generations of potential scholars of Hinduism have been lost, and the subsequent loss of a true diversity of perspectives is a loss we all suffer. In such a climate, the onus is therefore on the academic establishment to promote emic Hindu perspectives and scholarship to balance out the one-dimensional representations dominating Hinduism Studies today.
It is not that we eschew honest critiques and evaluations of Hinduism. We just believe that our tradition is rich enough to be engaged on its own terms. We believe that we would have richer scholarship if academics engaged with the actual words and experiences of Sri Ramakrishna, or the actual texts and philosophies of Tantra, or the actual Puranic accounts of Sri Ganesha, Devi and Shiva, rather than subjecting them to psychoanalysis by so-called scholars of Hinduism who have neither a sound knowledge of Sanskrit nor qualifications in (Freudian or other) psychology accepted by its respected authorities. This is true of psychoanalyst scholars, such as Doniger, Kripal and Courtright, who have no training or background in psychoanalysis.
We promote debate and dissension but ask that it be an honest and fair debate. In our purva-paksha system, the leaders of different religious traditions study each other's traditions in depth and then debate each other--they would speak, in the terminology of Prof. Arvind Sharma in his Preface to Invading the Sacred, as insider to insider and not as outsider to outsider. That is, they do not keep out the 'other' and study and debate him amongst themselves, but instead engage with the 'other' in debate. This leads to more authentic and constructive scholarship.
We also happen to believe that the study of Hinduism deserves to be more than just titillating fodder for psychoanalysis. Enlightenment thought did not begin a few hundred years ago in the narrow Western sliver of the world. Instead, the advent of rationality and scientific thought can be traced back several thousands of years ago to the very dawn of Hindu civilization, which gifted the world with the concept of 'zero,' the 'Arabic' numeral system, the decimal system, algebra and trigonometry, and astonishingly advanced knowledge of astronomy, etc. Hinduism never faced the schism between science and faith that has plagued the Western world, because new knowledge was always welcomed with an open mind. New knowledge was never perceived as a threat, because in the Hindu framework, wisdom was never limited to the revelations of one prophet or one canon but rather was always solidly based on insights of all who had reached certain stages of enlightenment. Hindu thought would thus be of immeasurable value as an approach to the reconciliation of science and faith, one of the most important challenges facing the modern world.
Our critics often accuse us of being chauvinistic, of being apologists seeking to glorify some long lost Vedic age that either never existed or can never again be revived. To the contrary, we believe that the genuine study of Hinduism is exceptionally relevant to the modern world, and that traditional Hindu approaches must be included in any toolbox of cultural solutions addressing the human rights, environmental, conflict resolution and gender discrimination challenges faced by global society today. The concept of ahimsa central to Hinduism encompasses nonviolence towards all living beings. The realisation that human beings must live in harmony with the natural environment in order to foster a sustainable and healthy society helped formulate a Hindu model of environmentalism, in tune with modern scientific concepts, thousands of years ago. Vandana Shiva and others transmitted this model to the West, and it has mushroomed into the global environmental movement.
We live in a world where a woman's self-esteem too often depends on how she is perceived by others, either at home or in the workplace. The understanding that every female is inherently a form of Devi and that it is only ignorance of her own true power and nature holding her back can thus be tremendously emancipating and uplifting. With mental health problems on the rise worldwide, Hindu psychology based on concepts such as the gunas, chakras and koshas, and practices of pranayama and yoga have much to offer to the treatment of psychological disorders. The list goes on.
These solutions are not perfect and deserve scrutiny and challenge. However, if we are serious about promoting multiculturalism and pluralism, if we are sincere about tackling the serious challenges we face as a society by using the most effective solutions, then such approaches deserve a fair hearing and must at least be investigated and explored. This is not a radical idea: scholars have been studying positive Islamic and Christian approaches to feminism and human rights. In order for such scholarship to be initiated with respect to Hindu approaches, the road ahead must be cleared of the discredited Freudian blockages. This will lead to serious scholarship on Hinduism and its vast potential as a storehouse of wisdom, insight and methods of physical, psychological and spiritual growth of value both to individuals and to society at large.
It is my hope that a few years from now, a young woman will sit at her desk, surrounded by shelves full of the Dharma Shastras, of classical Hindu texts on yoga and the various darshanas of Hindu philosophy, and of Puranas describing our deities and ancient lore in their full glory, and that she will engage with, question, and interpret these texts with fresh eyes. It is my hope that her voice will resound within the walls of the Ivory Tower alongside other voices; that her perspective will help shape how others view one of the world's greatest religions; that her insights will contribute to the fount of creativity and compassion from which we leave behind a world more peaceful, prosperous and healthy than the one into which we were born. It is my hope that this book, Invading the Sacred, will help open up the space and resources for that young woman to explore how the oldest forms of Hindu philosophy can pave new ways of thinking; to enable her to engage with other traditions and cultures not through intellectual 'invasions' but through constructive purva-paksha. That is the underlying mission of this book, and that is my personal hope, both for that young woman and for us all.
Aditi Banerjee received a B.A. in International Relations, magna cum laude, from Tufts University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. She is a practicing attorney in New York.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Dear Aditi ji,
I cordially invite you to my home to know more about Hinduism. Hopefully u will get answers of all the unanswered or unresolved queries. You can get my address from www.manava-bharati.org.
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