Interview with Vishal Agarwal
The Academic Cult of Eroticizing Hindus
Interview with Vishal Agarwal
Rajiv Malhotra, a long time critical evaluator of the scholarship of the Wendy Doniger school of Hinduism Studies speaks to Vishal Agarwal about the prejudices promoted by American scholars against Hinduism and Hindus.
Rajiv Malhotra retired from corporate life at the age of 44, more than 20 years ago, to study the causes of academic biases against Hinduism and India in the American Academe. He invested his savings in the Infinity Foundation, which is a think tank devoted to philanthropy and to a scholarly study of the Indian civilization.
Question: How did you get embroiled in disputes with American professors on how Hinduism should be taught? What was your first experience with academic misrepresentations of Hindu traditions in the west?
Infinity Foundation was initially started to study India and the contributions of Indian civilization to the world objectively. Then, in 2000, my kids who attended the Princeton Day School, told me that one of their teachers wanted information on Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda in order to teach about Hinduism in a class on world religions. Soon thereafter, another teacher informed me that he could not teach about these two Hindu saints, because according to an American scholar he was in touch with, they had had an inappropriate sexual relationship. This teacher was afraid that parents of other students in his class might therefore object to teaching about these saints. I was shocked to hear of this crass interpretation of the spiritual relationship between Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda, and therefore requested this teacher for an academic reference giving this interpretation. This is when I was shown the book ‘Kali’s Child’ by Jeffrey Kripal, a student of Wendy Doniger. I read it and also read copious amounts of the Doniger genre of literature on India. I became deeply pained to see their abuse of Hinduism by using the fig-leaf of Freudian psychoanalysis. Several decades ago, communists in West Bengal had alleged a homosexual relationship between Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. But these insinuations were rightly rejected as fringe and the perverse imagination of a few. However, in the western or more specifically American study of Hinduism in colleges, these interpretations seemed to have become mainstream.
Question: Can you tell us more about the first few prominent books that made you aware of the problem?
Besides Kali’s Child, another book that caught my attention was ‘Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings.’ Its author, Paul Courtright, describes the trunk of Ganesa as a limp phallus, his broken tusk as castration, and even the staff of a brahmachari during the sacred thread ceremony as a ‘detachable penis.’ There is a wholesale distortion of Hindu texts. For instance a blatantly false claim is made that Daksha raped his own daughter Sati, an avatar of the Devi.
Question: Did you approach the Hindu leadership in the United States to discuss these problematic descriptions? If yes, then what was their response?
I surmised that the Hindus in the United States were ignorant of these books despite their large-scale use in colleges for teaching about Hinduism. My hunch turned out to be largely correct. However, there were some local Hindu leaders who were in fact aware of these books but had chosen to do nothing for various reasons. Some argued: “Who cares if a scholar writes this nonsense about our faith because we know better.” Others said, “We are a tolerant religion and by objecting to this distortion of Hinduism, we do not want to come across as a fanatical community.” Most of the people were simply too arrogant or even scared to talk about it. Many were simply na⁄ve about the harmful effects of these academic works on the well-being of our community. And to be charitable, some leaders were simply too prudish to take-on this pornography that was being written in the name of academic scholarship.
And therefore, I started writing articles showing why these interpretations were wrong, and how they promoted prejudices about our heritage in the eyes of the American masses. The Indian civilization is one of the major ones of the world, and it has numerous unique features and contributions to human civilization. But these American scholars, who were largely students of Wendy Doniger, were using, or rather misusing, inapplicable lenses of Marxist, Freudian and leftist theories to an ancient and a deeply spiritual civilization. Moreover, the irony was that none of these scholars was actually trained professionally even in the theories that they had applied for analyzing Hinduism. It was, for example, kitsch-psychology, where words like “penis”, “vagina”, “semen” and “menstrual blood” were thrown in liberally to interpret everything and anything related to Hinduism in order to appear cool and provocative in a fashionable sense.
My articles generated a tremendous response from the Indian diaspora, way more than what I had imagined. I was already attending professional conferences of religion scholars, like the American Academy of Religion conference. What startled me was that whereas all the Abrahamic faiths and even Buddhism were largely represented by practitioner scholars, the opposite was the case with Hinduism. The dominant attitude was that, “We western scholars know Sanskrit better and we understand your texts and tradition more than you Hindus understand them.” In fact, I learned that those few scholars who did come out as Hindus (converts to Hinduism) were harassed and marginalized. It was as if, in the eyes of most western scholars, Hinduism needed to be saved from the Hindus!
In some conferences, I saw a sprinkling of Indian scholars but their role was largely confined to studying Hinduism from negative viewpoints. These Indian scholars were typically hardcore leftists with an ingrained hatred for Hindu culture, and served as obedient sepoys and coolies of western scholars promoting a narrative about India, one that was even more negative than the old colonial studies were. Therefore, in my articles exposing this network, I coined new phrases like “Wendy’s Children”, “Thaparís Children” and “Hinduphobia”, and redeployed old terms like “sepoys”, “coolies”, etc.
Question: What do you think about the recent banning of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History“? What was your role in this lawsuit that led to the ban.
I was not involved in the lawsuit at all. But I followed the case closely and I can offer my observations. Firstly, her book was not banned. I have always been very explicit and consistent in holding that I do not support banning books. What I believe happened was that Penguin, the book’s publisher, reached an out of court settlement with the opposing litigants and agreed to pulp the copies printed by them in India. In other words, Penguin decided not to pursue the case to its logical conclusion and withdrew only the Indian edition from the market. This has not prevented Penguin and other distributors from importing the editions printed abroad for sale in India. Secondly, the case against Penguin and Doniger was filed by the Shiksha Bachao Andolan which is headed by Mr Dina Nath Batra, and their legal counsel was a very competent lawyer named Monika Arora, who is a very reputed Supreme Court lawyer in New Delhi.
The case was filed by them under the applicable Indian laws. Similar laws exist in many other countries. Contrary to what is being suggested in the Indian press, to the best of my knowledge the petitioners or their supporters did not indulge in violence or threats. Their submission to the court merely lists the numerous embarrassing errors in Doniger’s book, her distortions of the Indian history, her slurs against the Hindus and her shoddy interpretations. They show how her book violates Indian sensibilities and specific laws. My guess is that neither the author nor the publisher were able to defend the contents of the flawed book. As a face-saving device for Doniger, they decided to withdraw the book. And in doing so, they actually blamed Batra’s organization as some kind of a violent group which is not really the case. The crux of the matter is that the case exposed the hollowness of the scholarship of Doniger, who is often referred to as “the greatest scholar of Hinduism” by her cronies and sepoys in Indian circles.
My criticisms of her writings are already available in the public domain. These were compiled into a book called “Invading the Sacred” that was published as long back as 2007. It became a best-seller in India. Given the breadth of my research interests, I have long ago moved beyond Doniger’s children. My writings cover numerous areas other than the Wendy Doniger school of Hinduism studies. I write on and promote scholarship on the history of Indian philosophy, the scientific contributions of India, about dharmic views of Abrahamic belief systems, and so on. I have authored and/or sponsored numerous books on these topics. I did not get embroiled in the case because it concerned a small fraction of my research, and I did not want to be branded in such a limited
way. Moreover, the litigants never asked me to intervene.
Question: Don’t you think that banning books merely increases their sales?
Exactly. When a book is the topic of a controversy, its sales soar. And that is what happened with Doniger’s book too, which sold like hot cakes on Amazon. Unfortunately, Doniger did not bother to respond to her critics or even correct the obvious errors in the book. Instead, she gloated in a very crass manner that her book was selling very well, and she laughed at the stupidity of Indians who turned her into a celebrity. It reflects her lack of academic competence and personal integrity.
In this digital age, it is foolish to believe that books can be banned at all. Electronic copies of her book are floating freely on the internet. I believe in a free-exchange and open market for ideas. My own ideas are also widely available online. It is the entrenched and elitist lobbies like that of Doniger and Indian Marxist historians who loathe the recent proliferation of social media and even of the internet and computers themselves! If you read earlier writings of Romila Thapar for instance, she has a negative view towards computers and the internet. The reasons are very clear – democratization of knowledge is feared by those who monopolize the print distribution channels and who rely on official and unofficial patronage. They have practiced gatekeeping like some chowkidars protecting a fortress. Even in her “The Hindus”, Doniger betrays a fear of the internet because critiques of her book can be posted online without censorship.
I think that the litigants represented by Monica Arora won a moral victory, and it would be appropriate to categorize their struggle against the publishing giant as a satyagraha, just as Gandhiji took on the mighty British empire with the weapon of non-violent struggle.
Question: But did you try to have a dialogue with her and arrive at a consensus on the contents of the book?
I and others have tried numerous times in the past to have a dialogue with Doniger, Courtight, Kripal and others. But, in their arrogance, they have made statements like, “These people are ignorant and unqualified, and are not worthy of our time.” In other words, Doniger and her students have been very dismissive of their critics and have persistently refused to engage in a dialogue with them. In fact, in academic discussion lists, her large group of students exert a strong influence, and have frequently cancelled the membership of dissenting voices. So they are like an academic mafia that indulges in a blatant suppression of free speech. None of
the Indian literary festivals and conclaves where her PR machinery made her a celebrity has ever invited her critics to participate on an equal basis. This one-sided patronage is a glaring example of controlling free speech, while claiming to be champions of intellectual freedom.
Extensive criticisms of her book, citing page and paragraph, are available on the web. One of them has actually been published in the form of a book that is available on Amazon.com. Even a casual reading of these critiques shows that her book has hundreds of verifiable factual errors. For instance, if Doniger says that a particular saint was patronized by a specific sultan, when history books tell us that this saint lived at a different region and time from that of the sultan, how can there be a dispute that she is incorrect? There are hundreds of such embarrassing errors in her book! And when you look at her constant kinking of Hindu scriptural narratives to read like pornographic fiction, you really start wondering. This raises questions about the integrity of the peer review processes used by publishers for reviewing works by Doniger and her students.
Interestingly, these scholars find me to be non-ignorable. Yet they do not talk to me personally before publishing distorted narratives about me. For instance, in her book “The Clash Within”, the radical leftist Martha Nussbaum wrote some vicious personal attacks on me but never contacted me to understand where I was coming from. Another gentleman she interviewed for the book suggested to her that she must contact me directly, but she pointedly refused to do so. No respectable editor of a publishing house ought to allow such slander to pass through. It appears to me that these scholars will accept Hindus only as passive native informants, and not as intellectual equals who can talk back and question them.
Question: How do you think Penguin should have reacted to the lawsuit against the book?
I believe that academic integrity requires that they should have brought out a new edition of the book correcting the hundreds of errors therein. It is my guess that Doniger manipulated this into a prestige issue, especially because people were talking not about a small number of errors but literally hundreds of errors that would have required her to rewrite entire chapters. If she had made such a major rewrite, the image of her being an impeccable scholar would have been shattered.
Instead of responding to these criticisms and being intellectually honest, Doniger has sought to hide by using the numerous awards that she received from various literary organizations, including those in India! Her work is heavily promoted by her students all over the world. Indian Marxist professors entrenched in American universities actually prescribe her books for teaching Hinduism, and this is their own way of promoting Hinduphobia.
If I examine her book as literature, I find it as sensational fiction. But it is severely flawed and biased when evaluated as serious scholarship. The book is not history; it is really the story of her own personal psychology.
Question: If Doniger’s scholarships is very flawed, haven’t there been criticisms of her work from within the academy? You cannot dismiss all western scholars of Hinduism as “Wendy’s Children.”
You are correct that all Hinduism scholars are not Wendy’s Children. And some who are not, have criticized her books. For instance, Michael Witzel, who is often regarded as a Hindu-hater per his own admission, has publicly shown how wrong her translations of Sanskrit texts are. Another German scholar has called her books as “fast food” that sell a lot and are addictive, but have a long term harmful effect on health, in this case meaning true scholarship. In fact, even Indian Marxist historians who have long suffered from Hinduphobia, used to criticize her books because they rejected the very existence of Hinduism as a religion. So how could she, they argued, write on an ancient religion that she claimed did not exist in the first place? These Indian Marxist historians feared that Doniger’s books could promote “communalism” in India.
In the past decade or a bit more, some interesting new developments have happened. The Marxist historians of India have continuously raised the bogey of Hindutva and violent Hindus, in order to strengthen their own bridges with western Indologists with a racist attitude towards Indians in general and the Hindus in particular. This new bonhomie was quite visible during the Doniger book controversy when all her former critics sprung to her defense and sought to dismiss any criticism of her book as an infringement of free speech! Hardly any of these scholars actually tried to counter the specific criticisms of her work by Hindu scholars. To me, this is a sad reflection of the intense politicization of the fields of South Asian Studies, Indology, Hinduism studies and India studies in the west. The credit for this goes to a great extent to the army of Marxist sepoys.
Question: Why do even books like hers do so well in the Indian market? Many Indian scholars have said that they like the book and have learned a lot from it.
After independence, the Marxist control over media, arts and literature, historiography etc. in the last several decades left a vacuum in the academic presentation of Hinduism studies. To teach anything about Hinduism means being branded “communal.” In government funded universities, there are hardly any dedicated programs teaching darshanas, for instance. In fact, most Indian authors write books about Hinduism under the category of “Indian culture” just to be politically correct. In this environment where it is uncool to be a Hindu in a country with an 80% Hindu population, suddenly there appears a book whose title says that it is on Hinduism, and which is written in racy English prose by a white woman claiming to be an expert of Sanskritic texts. The book instantly fills the vacuum. Because most English educated Indians were never taught much about Hinduism in a systematic manner,
they lap up whatever Doniger writes as a true and “safe” representation of their faith. Her copious but misleading footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies give her book a semblance of a serious work on Hinduism, whereas in fact many chapters could have been written better by even a college student taking an introductory course on Hinduism.
The Marxist elites entrenched in various government academies have a different reason for promoting her book. Her book climbed the political bandwagon of presenting the history of the marginalized sections of society. In reality however, the contents of the book are not about Hindu women, dalits or animals (all of whom she lumps together). Rather, she demeans Hindu women as over-sexed and violent creatures, and distorts the historical record to deprive dalits of any agency. In her descriptions, dalits and tribals were merely passive recipients of upper caste cultural influences and did not have much to contribute to Indian civilization! There is an entire cottage industry around the theme of what I termed “atrocity literature”, in which Indian masses are depicted as suppressed and oppressed and therefore in need of liberation by western interventionists. Her book fits this description, and is therefore promoted by Indian sepoy scholars who hate their own heritage and would like the racist western scholars to enter and “rescue” the Indian masses.
Question: So what do you think is the solution to this problem given that the discourse on Hinduism is controlled completely by hostile elements?
Yes, this is a very serious problem indeed. The collusion of Indian sepoys with their western masters in promoting Hinduphobia through atrocity literature complicates the issue further. It will require decades of serious scholarship to dismantle this edifice of hate. The first step is to question their so-called scholarship and biases. I have been doing this for more than two decades now. It gives me some solace and satisfaction to see that a considerable segment of Indian diaspora has awakened to this constant demonization of their heritage, and is now willing to defend it against scholarly hatemongers. It is my life-long mission, my version of karmayoga, to fight constantly against the hateful demonization of Hindus, or Hinduphobia as I prefer to call it, through independent scholarship.
The second thing to do in parallel would be for us as a community to invest our time, effort and money in understanding our own tradition. This would involve a willingness to see our children get degrees in fields like the academic study of religion – something different from the usual engineering, medicine, law and economics majors.
Third, the Hindu diaspora will need to reassess its priorities. We have constructed thousands of beautiful temples all over the world. But, we risk these temples becoming museums within a few generations because we are not educating our children on what our culture truly means. No longer are our children willing to perform long rituals mechanically in a language they do not understand. Our tradition is very profound and meaningful, and it is a pity that we are not explaining its beauty to our children. It is heartening to see that some sampradayas within the Hindu diaspora are awakening to this need and are creating seminary-like institutions for training using very rigorous methods. But much, much more needs to be done. As a community, we tend to spend too much resources on melas, parties, non-educational events and rituals at the expense of the jnana based traditions.
Fourth, there is a sprinkling of good Hindu professors in the academe but they are too timid to confront racist biases of their colleagues, or stand up to the bullying of leftist Indian implants in departments of arts and humanities in the west. These Hindu professors will need to show some more grit, and launch an academic satyagraha.
Fifth, and very important, there still exists considerable traditional scholarship within several sampradayas in India but their publications are mainly in Indian languages. Many traditional scholars devote their lifetimes studying a specific scripture (e.g. the Ramcharitmanas) for their own spiritual growth, and they can read these texts backwards forwards. These scholars can instantly recognize false textual references and absurd interpretations in works like those of Donigers. I think that English speaking scholars should consult these traditional scholars while countering Hinduphobic works of Doniger and Thapar schools. I have made a call that we must develop a “home team” with different kinds of expertise working together.
Finally, Indians in India (including government, industry, sampradadayas and the general public) must shoulder this responsibility. It cannot be left to a few individuals in the diaspora. Whatever I might have achieved with my humble efforts in these past two decades, it is time that others with better resources and institutional clout must shoulder more responsibility quickly.
Question: Hinduism is said to be a very tolerant religion. Don’t you think that calls for withdrawing her book and the litigation itself go against the principles of Hindu tolerance?
This is the reason why Hindus have not made a Rushdie out of any Arundhati Roy, or Romila Thapar or Wendy Doniger. Hindus have frustrated all attempts to make any Hinduphobes a martyr despite frequent feigned claims that “I am being attacked by Hindu nationalists”. Ironically, Hindu passiveness is being used as a weapon against the Hindus. Hinduism has an open architecture type toolkit from which people can borrow various tools to improve their lives, as per their own preferences. The diversity of Hindu approaches and even goals makes us accept so many interpretations of our traditions quite naturally. But let us call a spade a spade when we face intolerant and aggressive individuals and groups taking advantage of our openness.
A case in point is the academic mafia that I mentioned earlier. These academics preach tolerance to us and chide us in the name of free speech. But they themselves control most of the academic publishing venues, internet discussion lists, educational institutions and they have a strong presence in the media. They angrily suppress any dissenting voices and one of the strategies used by them is to malign their critics as being hyper-emotional, ignorant and dangerous individuals. Nothing is further from the truth. If Doniger and her ilk truly believe in openness and in free speech, then they should be willing to debate in public forums, and respond to their critics.
I have shaped my own struggle after Gandhijiís satyagraha. He fought against a mighty global empire “on which the sun never set.” But he fought the imperialists and colonialists through non-violent means, using truth and compassion as his weapons. As Krishna too says in the Gita, there is no greater purifier in this world than knowledge. I believe that through my writings and those of other critics of Doniger, the darkness of ignorance, racism, prejudice and Hinduphobia can be replaced with the light of true understanding of our great heritage.
Question: Arundhati Roy has said that Penguin withdrew the book because they feared that a fascist government would come to power soon headed by Modi. What is your opinion on this?
Arundhati Roy is indulging in a guilty by association tactic. India was then ruled by the UPA government and no decent publisher has withdrawn any books based on fears. And why should we pay credence to Roy in this matter at all? She is not a scholar of Hinduism. I see no reason to believe that she has read Doniger’s book or its criticisms or that she even understands either. Roy in fact supports various terrorist movements in India and supports the secession of Kashmir from India. She is an intensely political person with her own axe to grind. Her career has been built on peddling atrocity literature to her western and westernized Indian base of readers.
Moreover, India is a democracy and it is governed by laws and the constitution. India is not a banana republic. The irony is that Roy and her ilk who demean the Hindus are in fact extremely intolerant and close-minded themselves, and have historically been at the forefront of banning sprees in independent India.
Question: Any final comments?
I was recently the target of a massive attack trying to get my books banned. Luckily a counter-petition by my supporters was such an overwhelming success that the opponents of my free-speech ran away. It was an entirely false smear campaign. It caught the attention and support of foolish Indians in the media because it was led by a white man who falsely claimed to be from Princeton University. In fact, he has nothing to do with that university at all. He runs one of the largest Christian seminaries in the US, and his personal role has been to proselytize in India in the guise of protecting Dalits and so-called Dravidians, and he has supported the Dalit Christian movement by taking its “human rights oppression” to the global stage.
The slander against me was meant to convince my publishers to stop publishing my works, because my latest book, The Battle For Sanskrit, is being seen as the biggest threat these people have faced in recent times. This goes to show the hypocrisy in their claims of fighting intolerance. They are a viciously intolerant lot!