Denying Experience: Do Hindus ‘worship’? Do they do Pooja to phallus (linga)?

Someone, let’s say her name is Wendy Doniger, comes along and sniggers ‘when you worship the lingam, you worship a phallus’. I do not identify Wendy’s statement as an ‘ad hoc’ explanation. I say that it trivializes what I am doing by providing a distorted description of what I do. Here is what I say: “I am doing Puja to Shiva.” No discussion about ‘Lingam’ or its many meanings. This is a wrong way of conducting a discussion. She cannot, therefore, argue that I am giving an ‘ad hoc’ explanation because I am not giving an ‘explanation’ of what I am doing but merely describing it.

Let us sketch some scenarios in order to see what conversational moves are there in such a discussion.

(1) She sees me doing ‘something’ and asks me what I am doing.

(2) I say I am doing Puja to Shiva. From here on, two possible threads of discussion open up. The first thread goes like this.

(3) Either she asks ‘why’ I do it: I say, it is our tradition, or that I am a Bhakta of Shiva, or because my mother said I should, or whatever else happens to be the case. Or she asks me why Shiva has the form he has: either I tell her the story from the Puranas, or provide her a ‘sthala purana’ (i.e. a story about that particular temple) or I say, ‘this is how we do it’.

(4) Let us say, she pursues the story from the Puranas and asks me ‘So, you are worshipping the Lingam of Shiva’. I say, ‘yes, indeed, this is Shiva Lingam’.

(5) Being persistent, she goes further: ‘do you know what ‘Lingam’ means?’ and I reply ‘well, yes, I do know some of its meanings as we use it in our language’.

(6) Suppose she isolates one meaning, say, phallus and asks me: ‘So, you say you are worshipping Shiva’s Lingam’. I reply, unperturbed, ‘yes, but I said so already: this is Shiva’s Lingam. That is why we call it Shivalingam and not, say, KuberaLingam’. In this thread, where I am using Indian words, she cannot even come close to saying what she wants to.

Suppose at step three, we switch to speaking in English.

(3′) She asks what ‘puja’ is and what ‘lingam’ means. Here is what I would say today: “‘Puja’ is best understood as a ritual; as far as ‘Lingam’ is concerned, I suggest you see it as ‘the form’ in which this ritual is performed to Shiva”. Again here, two possible threads open up: the first where she ‘contests’ my translation and the other where she accepts it.

Let us pursue the second thread to begin with.

(4′) ‘Why has Shiva taken this form?’ Because I am not trying to be polemical, I tell her our stories from the Puranas and say it is one of the stories from our tradition. And I add, ‘to perform puja to Shiva means to perform the ritual to this form’. Because my description has the form of a definition (Shiva puja=ritual to this form) no sensible discussion about it is possible.

(5′) She can come up with another definition, but then, I say ‘yes, but that is not my definition’ and the discussion is over. On this thread, where we are discussing in English, she cannot say what she wants to either.

Let us now suppose she contests my translation given in step (3′). How is she going to do it?

(4′) “But you are wrong. ‘Puja’ is ‘worship’ and ‘lingam’ means ‘penis’. Therefore, you are ‘worshipping a penis when you say that you are doing puja to the Shiva Lingam'”. Here is what I would say today: “You see, the English word ‘worship’ comes basically from Christian theology where one worships either the God or the Devil and nothing else. Under no interpretation of such a theology could one consider Shiva as ‘God’, leaving us with only one possibility that Shiva is either the Devil or his minion. Is this what you want say: that we are worshipping Devil or his minions? In that case, Wendy, we are not discussing a translation issue but a Christian theological one.” Again, two threads open up: either she denies it or asks for further explication. Let us take up her denial first.

(5′) “No, that is not what ‘worship’ means. It means ‘reverence’. I am not a Christian, I was born a Jew; I know nothing of Christian theology even though I was married to one for some time.” I would say the following today: “Wendy, I would be willing to accept your definition of ‘worship’. But if I do so, I must do violence to other people and cultures: the Jewish, the Christian and the Muslim. From your definition, it would follow that they are not ‘worshipping’ God at all! And further, they cannot. In all these cultures, one can show ‘reverence’ to the elderly, the king, knowledge, the powerful, etc. To say that they show ‘reverence’ to God in the same way is to transform all of them into ‘idolaters’, which, according to their theologies, is the greatest sin! I am sorry, but your translation of ‘puja’ is not a mere linguistic issue.” Again, the discussion shifts to another level. She cannot pursue this line of enquiry either.

Let us say she asks for explication, the other thread in step (4′). How can the discussion proceed?

(5″) Here let me bend the stick in favour of Wendy. “But every Sanskrit-English dictionary, and every Indian teacher in Sanskrit who knows English, translates ‘puja’ as ‘worship’. Are you saying their knowledge of either languages is deficient and you are the only one who knows how to translate ‘Puja’ correctly?” Being a reasonable person, I would not get offended by her rhetorical attempts to make me appear ridiculous. I would say the following: “You see, Wendy, we all learnt English through Indian languages and were taught that ‘Puja’ means ‘worship’. We give the meaning of ‘Puja’ to the English word ‘worship’. The first generations of translators ‘decided’ to translate ‘puja’ as ‘worship’ because they were convinced that we are ‘idolaters’ and ‘worshipped’ the Devil and his minions. So, you see, we have to discuss the historical issues involving colonialism and what it means to a culture like ours in order to satisfactorily resolve the issues of translation. That is all I am saying. Shall we do so? Have your read ‘The Heathen in his blindness: Asia, the West and the dynamic of religion‘?”

Thus I can go on sketching several other scenarios of the possible conversational moves open to Wendy in conducting such a conversation. In none of them can she induce the cognitive wrongness that was induced in me when I was a boy of 14. She simply does not have the cognitive ability to come up with an explanation that can trivialize my experience any more. Let me just pen a few reflections about this state of affairs, because it is very important to realize what has happened consistently throughout these conversations.

(A) The first thing to notice is that, in all these scenarios, I am defining the terms of the debate. She is unable to do this with respect to what I am doing.

(B) I am able to do it because I am knowledgeable about the western culture. That is, I am not ignorant of the western culture the way I was when I was 14 or 24. Therefore, I am able to tell her that she does not understand her own culture as well as I understand hers.

(C) My principle of charity forbids me from transforming any culture, whether hers or mine, into a bunch of idiots. My conversational move in (5′) makes me defend the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian cultures because of this principle. Of course, the same principle makes me defend Indian traditions as ‘reasonable’ ones too.

(D) I am not making use of any fancy defensive ‘explanation’ – some or another kind of ‘symbolic’ explanation – (or even any ‘explanation’) that many Indians come up with to defend their own traditions. Such ‘explanations’ arise out of ignorance: both of their own traditions and, above all, of the western culture. They have very little understanding of the subjects they talk about, but the ‘conviction’ they know what is there to know is matched by none. Most English-speaking Indian intellectuals are a pompous and empty lot: they talk and argue for the sake of doing so, and believe that ‘knowledge’ is a matter of providing citations and references to books. (I will be writing the article I promised you, as an answer to your question, where I will take up this issue in some detail.) But they have no depth of understanding regarding either their own traditions or those of the West. They are like the JNU ‘intellectuals’: empty, sanctimonious, convinced of their own intelligence, but full of hot air.

(E) To understand my mother, I needed to understand my mother-in-law. What you see in my imaginary conversation with Wendy is an exemplification of this realization. There will be no Indian Renaissance without breeding a new set of intellectuals. The current lot is not even worth the paper on which they write and produce so much nonsense. This might sound a harsh judgment. Undoubtedly, there are some fine individuals among them; I know a few of them personally myself. But this is how I look at the issue.

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  1. Pingback: Puja and Worship—S.N. Balagangadhara | All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!

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