Ganesha, Shivaji and Power Play
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
The news from Mumbai that the Maharashtra government is contemplating seeking the help of Interpol to arrest James Laine, the author of “Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India” and bringing him to Mumbai to face criminal charges, makes for some interesting reading in this political season. That the State government and the Center are trying to rattle the professor, who teaches at McAlester University in Minneapolis, should warn Prof. Laine, at least for now, that he can forget he has a ten-year multiple entry visa for travel to India!
Sharad Pawar and his National Congress Party want to take the mantle of Shivaji torch-bearers and leave the BJP and the Shiv Sena lagging behind in the populist rhetoric and vote-getting race. That the decision to take Laine to court came within 48 hours of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s announcement that Laine cannot be excused for hurting the sentiments of Indians and Marathas shows that the doughty old Vajpayee’s political cart too can be upended. In this curious one-upmanship game the real issue may get ignored: what is the nature of modern inquiry by Westerners of other people’s culture, norms and beliefs and what recourse do we have when in the guise of scholarship people resort to defamation and desecration?
Some have opined that action can be taken against Laine “for hurting the sentiments of Indians on the issue of national heroes”. I say, fat chance! But they argue that it is vital that Laine has to face the prospect of defending himself in court. “Aren’t these professors liable for inciting riots by hurting the religious sentiments of people and isn’t it far better to offer legal avenues for the offended people, rather than have people keep their anger bottled up until it explodes in violent riots?” they wonder. They also point out that holocaust deniers, those who have written books against Islamic fundamentalism and others have been hauled to court in the United Kingdom and in France recently.
It is unfortunate, nay tragic, that the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was ransacked and precious manuscripts destroyed after the details of Laine’s book became public. While the angry mob led by local politicians is clearly to blame for the violence, don’t supposedly mature “scholars” who fail to exercise minimal sensitivity and responsibility, not share some blame? However, trying to drag a scholar to court could also set a bad precedent and make any study in the humanities more difficult, as a concerned colleague who teaches Hinduism at my university told me. Conversely, there may be no other safe venue for those whose civilizational heroes and deities have been desecrated and demeaned but to seek legal recourse.
Laine’s book is just a lame book by yet another “India-expert” who thinks he can get away with ugly speculation and deliberate provocation about other people’s lives, heroes and deities. Colonial mindsets still fill the halls of Western academe and I don’t care for such specious speculation. As I have pointed out before (India Abroad, November 28, 2003), the book by Paul Courtright, for example, is an affront to Hindus. I was among a group of eight people who met with Emory University officials to express our anger and disgust at that book. Emory University officials expressed regret at the hurt caused but said that they cannot engage us any further because academic freedom is involved. Courtright, according to them, has the right to write whatever he wants and it is left to his peers to either accept or reject what he writes. Ignored was the fact that Emory University recently reprimanded a Cultural Anthropology professor for making a racially off-color remark about the status of her discipline in academe. Ignored too in their argument was a careful enquiry into the nature of “truth” claims.
The mention of “truth” can make my colleagues in the humanities cringe. Unlike proof or “truth” in the hard sciences which is based on validity and reliability, what is “truth” in the humanities? In the humanities we don’t seek “explanations” or “truth” as much as we do “meanings”. So, Courtright and his peers argue that he has the right to find “meanings” in the symbol and image of Ganesha. All of the ridiculous claims – that the elephant trunk represents a limp phallus, that Ganesha’s pot belly and his love of sweets represents oral fixation and such other sick interpretations -- are Courtright’s own fantasies, not that of either the people who worship Ganesha or those who have written commentaries on Ganesha in India.
This stretching of meanings is rife in the humanities. When I was invited by a colleague to talk to her graduate students about the Kannada novel “Samskara” one of the students asked me if the “kumkum” that most Hindu women wear on their forehead could symbolize menstrual blood. I was aghast but not my colleague, a White American, who happily bantered on about the “very interesting” speculation. Averse to transgressing on my colleague’s authority, I pointed out that men too wear “kumkum” on their foreheads, widows are traditionally barred from wearing it, older women who are past menopause wear it and young girls who have not yet attained maturity wear it. But this example shows how in the humanities there is an unbridled movement to reduce others’ symbols (as well as their own) to some simplistic caricature based either on pop-psychology or on some fashionable feminist or Marxist theories.
Thus, Indian-American interlocutors have raised very serious concerns about the whole project of “Hinduism studies” in the US/West. When every kind of wild imagining is undertaken by poorly prepared graduate students and their ethnocentric mentors, the whole world becomes their playpen and they assert that no one has the right to criticize and challenge them for what they do in their playpen with their “toys”.
Academic peers cannot seem to distinguish truth from falsehood, nor do they care that there be standards for “interpreting” others’ modes of worship, beliefs and practices. Oversight is therefore important if we are to have any rigorous standards for interpretation. In many disciplines of the humanities and even within religion studies, there are internal mechanisms that ensure careful and serious criticism of arguments and theses. If, however, as it seems in the case of Hinduism studies, there is either no oversight or poor oversight, then who gets to do valid criticism? Some Left/Marxist Indian-American scholars, who are driving their own interpretative vehicles through Indian society in Demolition-Derby fashion, are aghast that ordinary Indians and Indian-Americans, who have no training in the humanities, dare challenge a Laine or a Courtright. Thus, writing in Frontline one of them bemoans that “reputable professors like Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago and Paul Courtwright of Emory University have been charged with belittling Hinduism”. He then blames the “Sangh” for carrying out such campaigns. And then intones that “there is no mention of internal critiques of ‘Hinduism’”. Completely ignored in this diatribe is that the charges against Courtright are very specific. Courtright’s work on Ganesha is not a “critique of Hinduism” or of Ganesha. Parts of his analysis of Ganesha are simply bad speculation. The same thing with Laine’s book: he speculates about Shivaji’s paternity based on some “dirty jokes” he claims he heard in Maharashtra.
Are such specious speculations possible in the study of Christianity or Islam without a serious challenge by academics, lay people and popular commentators? Don’t we know that very recently, French novelist Michel Houellebecq was sued by four Islamic organizations after he called Islam “the stupidest religion” in a magazine interview?
Thus, Courtright’s, Laine’s and other scholars’ peevish claims about academic freedom do not stand close scrutiny. To argue for the right of such egregious and idiosyncratic interpretations, without careful vetting by internal critics and without a concern for other people’s right to their own symbols and practices, is merely an argument for slander in the guise of scholarship.
Courtright’s book deals with cultural and religious symbols. These symbols are at least as sacred to their believers, as unbridled “freedom” is to teenagers and some academics. The profaning of such symbols, even for scholarly purposes, is fraught with both political and cultural consequences that cannot be controlled or managed by the author/s of the “profanity”. Thus, we have the sorry case of James Laine having to hire a lawyer to ward off threats from the Maharashtra government and the case of Paul Courtright who had to find in his mail-box angry denunciations of his book and his character.
Emory University lined up a bunch of people, including Indian-Americans, to vouch for the “character” of Paul Courtright, as if “character certificates” can resolve matters of specious and speculative enterprises. If indeed Paul Courtright and James Laine are “honorable” men, all that they need to have done is to admit that their scholarship is suspect and that their controversial books need to be relegated to their own bookshelves and are not fit for public consumption. Emory University prominently displays Courtright’s book in their South Asia department showcases, which indicates to us that even their expression of “regret” for the hurt and anger of Hindus is suspect.
Courtright recently presented a talk at Williams College titled “Studying Religion in the age of terror”, implying probably that his right to study Hinduism is now under threat by Hindu “terrorists”. Martyrdom fetish is common among some fundamentalists and playing to the gallery is even more common among some “scholars”. So, Courtright’s initial namby-pamby “apology” is now replaced by aggressive posturing as the “Valiant Defender of Academic Freedom”. Such posturing is not constructive and leaves intellectual problem-solving in the hands of the courts or the mob.
As a friend pointed out, the bottom line is that the court in Maharashtra is going to be asked to uphold the law in the case of Laine. If no law has been broken, that’s the end of the matter. If, however, Indian laws have been broken, what’s wrong with Laine and Courtright being prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law? Indeed.
Originally published on April 16, 2004.