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Sunday, April 11, 2004

The Most Tolerant of Religions

Via David Adesnik, I see that several Hindus are angry at academic writings about Hinduism. (Incidentally, in that article, I see that the rumor I'd heard several months ago about Wendy Doniger and an egg is true, although it doesn't seem to have been reported anywhere else but here and insane-crazy-kill-people Hindu websites.)

As Doniger says, "no one who is not a Hindu has the right to speak about Hinduism at all." Not an opinion reserved for the saffron-wearing sword-wielding Hindutvavadis, either: I've heard it in general as well as specifically in my direction from American-born and quite westernized classmates at Harvard, and professors have assured me that it is frequently asserted in shouting matches at American Academy of Religion meetings. As Adesnik points out, though, Hindus are only getting what Christians and Jews (and people involved in politics) have had for ages; academia is going to teach what it thinks is right, which may have very little relation to the involved parties' experience of that subject. Additionally, we'd be at rather a shortage of professors, among other issues, if only orthodox Christians were allowed to speak about Christianity!

The fury and wrath is not directed purely at outsiders, however; nor does it come from all Hindus. I was party to a delightful argument in Calcutta among Hindus of different flavors ("denominations" is misleading, as is "sects," so I'm following a friend's lead in using "flavors" to refer to the different kinds of Hinduism, some of which have not a single belief in common with others -- but my schpiel about the common presentation of "Hinduism" as a unified religion is for another day). This was four years ago, so a version-in-brief follows:

They were talking about the Shiva Lingam, a generally aniconic representation of Shiva in the form of a squat pillar, rounded off at the top, with a base that can collect milk and other offerings. "Lingam," while it has many meanings, is often the word chosen when male genitals are being referred to; "yoni," a common name for the base, is frequently the word for female genitals. One of the arguers, a man from a Bombay Vaishnavite (Vishnu-focused) background who was accompanying my group, made the indisputable point that unsympathetic westerners have frequently pointed disapprovingly at these sculptures as proof of the moral depravity of sex-crazed Hindus. He went on to say that the westerners misinterpreted the lingam as a phallic symbol and thereby had a perverted vision of the purity that is Hinduism. His acquaintance, a Shaivite (Shiva-based) from Bengal, laughed and called him a prude, pointing out that it's common knowledge -- as far as the Vedas and other scriptures go -- that one of the main loci of power is in the semen, that an ascetic like Shiva who abstains from sex has a huge amount of tapas (spiritual heat) built up in his semen from that restrain, and that the lingam is obviously a phallic symbol, as that's the best way to represent Shiva's power! It's not Hindus' fault that westerners have sexual hang-ups. A culture that will produce the temple of Khajuraho and the Kamasutra, while it may honor sexual restraint, certainly doesn't conceive of sex as dirty! Even Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, is sung of lovingly as seducing all the women, married and unmarried, of a village, and having celestial sex with them in the nine positions! I recall the Vaishnavite demurring that all of the talk about sex, no matter how explicit, should really be taken as an allegory -- like the people who try to make the Song of Solomon out to be not about sex at all. The argument ended up with the Bombay man telling the Bengali that he shouldn't say such things over on the west coast, or the guardians-of-hinduism the RSS would have his head!

I've talked at length about my morbid fascination with Hindutva (and their webboards are already all over this WaPo story), as well as my academic goal to one day get on their Hit List, so I won't repeat that here. True, I do agree with their dislike of many people (bin Laden, the head of the Indian underworld, certain writers, etc. -- although I wouldn't exactly put them all on a "hit list"), but just because liberal feminists agree with conservative Muslims that beauty contests are bad doesn't mean there's anything else in common between the two groups!

UPDATE: I suppose I should also make it clear that I can't stand most trendy academic writing on Hinduism -- by which I mean the kind of writing mentioned in the WaPo article, the kind of writing Wendy Doniger often does, and the kind of thing we're doing right now in my lit-crit class, which mainly involves first bowing down to Freud as a demiurge and then unquestioningly applying his ludicrous theories (by now abandoned in all psychology departments yet still flourishing in religion and literature departments) to Indian literature. It's the Kamasutra? it's about sex (although possibly not). It's a play about a girl frolicking with animals and picking flowers? it's about sex. It's a poem praising the ineffable deity? it's about sex. It's an epic about warriors? it's about sex. You get the picture. However, they do that to everything (just look at Harvard's popular course on fairy tales!), and every religion's and culture's dearly-held texts, not just Hinduism and India. And they frustrate me in all fields; however, I'm not going to throw eggs at them or call for their execution.


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