On Patrick Hogan’s ‘Why Hindus should be grateful to Wendy Doniger’—S.N.Balagangadhara

Dear Patrick Hogan,

It is jolly good of you, as the British say, to contribute to the ‘literary landscapes’ column in Sulekha at this particular juncture. I am glad too that you put across some thoughtful considerations without being polemical, and that can only help generate a stimulating discussion among all the concerned parties. However, the way you frame your points make the task an exercise in walking on a tight rope.

(1) “Anyone who cares about Hinduism or Indic traditions should be grateful to Wendy Doniger” you say. Well, I am not sure I care much about ‘Hinduism’, but I definitely do care about the Indian traditions, which includes ‘Indic traditions’ as their subset. I have read a few works of Wendy; I have bought many more which I will not read; and, I am sure, I am not going to buy any more. I want to reflect aloud why, and solicit your arguments. Before I do so, a few more preliminary points need to be dealt with.

(2) Because it is about the intellectual contributions of Wendy Doniger, I have to pass (for the time being) on some of the provocative remarks you make about the Gita. In all honesty, I would have much preferred to engage you on these points because they are far more substantial than any of the ten reasons you provide while pleading the case that you do.

(3) In other words, while admitting that you indeed have provided ten reasons, permit me to engage with you (within the confines of a tight rope) on the issue whether they are good reasons as well.

Let me take first take the title of your contribution literally to see whether, cognitively speaking, I should be grateful to Wendy Doniger and, if so, which of the ten considerations count as candidates.

1. Her formidable scholarship. Not knowing Wendy personally, I am quite willing to grant her everything you say. (This includes hyperboles like “her command of the Puranas may be unparalleled”. Acceptable as a form of defense, but quite unconvincing: I do not believe she can hold a candle to my mother’s knowledge of the Puranas. Of course, there is no way either of us could argue this case, especially given that my mother is dead. But I will not take you up on these kinds of issues.) Need I be grateful to Wendy for that? We have indeed come a long way in the academy if we have to be grateful to people that their learned discourses presuppose scholarship (not ignorance). I cannot imagine me having to be grateful to a physicist because he knows the relevant material in his domain. This is a conditio sine qua non for talking Patrick, not something to be grateful about! But that you find it important enough to be a ‘reason’ might tell us something about the nature of scholarship about India hitherto: many who did speak were illiterate in the subject matter. If such is (was?) the case, compared to them, Wendy could really exhibit a scholarship that is truly formidable. But then remember, it is defined relative to illiteracy. How does the saying go again? ‘In the land of the blind…’ In other words, a reason it might be for one to be grateful to Wendy but a good reason it certainly is not.

2. Her command of language next. Should one know Sanskrit in order to talk about the Indic traditions? Well yes, if one does philology but not otherwise. One could build sociological, psychological, economic etc. explanations about Indic traditions without being a philologist. Even here, a qualification requires to be made. One could develop a hypothesis about the natural languages, and even more specifically about Sanskrit, without knowing Sanskrit. The sanskritists could provide one with facts that might ‘confirm’ or ‘falsify’ one’s hypothesis; but there is no good reason why the one who makes the hypothesis needs to know Sanskrit as well. If you grant me this, from this it follows that one would make a perfect ass of oneself by entering into a philological discussion about Sanskrit without knowing Sanskrit philology. To the extent you say she knows Sanskrit, I take your word for it, to that extent she is doing something one should take for granted. (See my considerations above.) Thus, it appears to me, her philological knowledge is no good reason for me to be grateful to her either. It is like saying one should be grateful to Greek philologists that they know Greek! [About the other points you make about Witzel and his knowledge of English. Your question: why he publishes on the internet and does not submit his findings to academic review. It appears to me that the rhetorical force of your question could get blunted if it turns out, for instance, that there are some excellent reasons other than those you imply. Are they nit-picking trivialities? Well, that depends on one’s vantage point, does it not? To some, the entire field of philology consists of such nit-picking trivialities; to someone like me, most of Biblical scholarship (that focus on some or another word fragment and its translation from the Aramaic into the Septuagint) appears that way. But obviously not to those who devote their life-time to such activities.] “Where would the English or American reader be without Doniger’s masterful translation of Manusmrti, her beautiful selection of Hindu myths, her uncompromising translation of the Rig Veda (which, as she explains, tries to preserve the raggedness of some parts of the original) — not to mention her glorious rendering of the Oresteia?” you ask. Permit me a deflationary answer: where they are not today. You need to show that where they are today is better than where they would have been, if your rhetorical passage is to have some bite. That you have not.

3. Your third reason why she deserves my gratitude lies in her interpretative acumen. The first aspect concerns her philological ability. I will accept this for what it is worth. But your second aspect, it appears to me, is extraordinary to say the least. Here is what you say: “Doniger works in the Structuralist tradition according to which it is crucial to read as many variants of a myth as possible. The variants form a transformation set which gives the interpreter a way of discerning fundamental principles of the culture that produced, sustained, and varied these myths.” The first sentence tells us about the tradition in which Doniger works; the second amplifies what that tradition is about. From this one has to conclude that her acumen resides in her choice for the structuralist tradition. There are many points to be made about this; therefore, I will choose what I consider important. (I can always add other points if and when our discussion takes of.)

Suppose that I want to understand the western culture. So, I read many variants of the Bible, the Biblical myths and I arrive at this ‘transformation set’ that you speak of. Tell me, Patrick, how this helps me in ‘discerning the fundamental principles’ of the western culture that ‘produced, sustained and varied these myths.’ [You might want to say that the western culture did not produce these myths but some ‘culture’ in the Middle East did. But the culture that sustained and varied these myths is the western culture.] What fundamental principles has this structuralist tradition excavated about the ‘western culture’ that they enable me to understand (in whatever sense of the word) the western culture? What do I understand about the Western culture (at any period in its history) by reading the Four Gospels? (After all, they are four variants of the same myth.)

What should one say about the ‘acumen’, which reads the ‘variants’ of some Indian myths and makes pronouncements about the ‘fundamental principles’ of a culture? It does not, I am afraid, tell me anything positive about this acumen, except that it is pompous, pretentious and stupid.

Am I to be grateful that Wendy propagates this nonsense? Am I to assume that the ‘where the British and the American reader’ today is, is better than where they would have been without this ‘deep insight’? Forgive me Patrick, I do not see any reason for expressing my gratitude to Wendy for this phenomenal achievement.

Now, of course, you do not say that the ‘transformation set’ gives one the insights into the fundamental principles of a culture but that it merely provides the interpreter ‘a way’. In this form, it is hardly worth talking about and I am surprised you consider it as a reason to be grateful to Wendy. In exactly the same sense, one could claim that eating Idli’s is also a ‘way’ for an interpreter to gain insights into the ‘fundamental principles’ of a culture. How can one discuss this, unless one also says what that way consists of?

Your subsequent passage about what the demagogue does, the presence of diversity in a tradition, the fact that a tradition is not ‘univocal’, etc. is an important one but, alas, betrays the absence of an insight into the nature of political and social movements. Clearly, you are targeting the current ‘Hindutva’ rage in India. I join you in expressing my abhorrence towards any virulent ideology. But I must say, I did not need a Wendy or the structuralist tradition to do this. To the extent the ‘British and the American reader’ requires a Wendy to come to this insight, to that extent I can only express my regrets at what has become of modern education in Britain and America. One would expect a sounder understanding of sociology, history and politics from students belonging to such advanced nations as Britain and America.

About using the psychoanalytic principles to understand the ‘profundity’ of the ancient myths. I am sure many others will want to engage you on this; so I will just make one remark. The ‘profundity’ of one is the ‘vulgarity’ of the other: you will need to do more than hand waving in the direction “deep human feelings” to convince me of the ‘acumen’ in this case.

4. Let me go to the fourth reason for gratitude. It resides in the ‘universalism’ of Wendy, you say. It is quite unclear what precisely this universalism is. On the one hand, (a) it appears to be about appreciating the existence of “significant cross-cultural patterns in myth”; (b) at the same time, this recurring ‘pattern’ is supposed to be legacy of Structuralism and is related to the presence of something like a universal cognitive structure. On the other hand, the paragraphs are also about (c) the ‘contradictory’ threads within the Indian traditions; and, all of a sudden (d) affirmations of universalism and pacifism seem to become the trademarks of Wendy Doniger. While understandable in rhetorical texts, such transitions without clear focus or arguments make discussions extremely difficult. So, I will have to take a guess about the reasons for gratitude. By highlighting the ‘ambivalences’ in the Indian traditions, Wendy’s contributions can prevent people from fighting those hijackers of Indian traditions who emphasize the ‘militaristic’, divisive threads within the Indian traditions. If this is what you want to say, I am appalled. (If you want to say something else, I wish you would spell it put more clearly.)

Are you serious Patrick? Those who have to fight ‘divisive’ and ‘militaristic’ tendencies within India are in India. Most of them cannot speak English; hardly any has heard of Wendy. Should they be grateful for Wendy? I am sure you do not mean anything as silly as this.

Perhaps you refer to the Indians living in ‘Britain and America’. Mutatis mutandis, the same consideration holds good here too: they may speak English, but most have never heard of a Wendy. In fact, one of the oft heard reactions to Rajiv Malhotra’s column (from Indians both in India and elsewhere) was one of shock: they did not know either about Wendy or about her contributions.

So, who are you referring to? The ‘British and American reader’, whose only knowledge of India comes from Wendy’s books? Are you suggesting that these readers are sophisticated enough to understand Wendy’s psychoanalytical jargon and yet so stupid that they would not know that cultures always exhibit internal varieties and diversities, and that peace is ‘good’ and war is ‘bad’ without Wendy’s help? Really! Who is conning whom here?

In short, whatever ‘universalism’ it is that you talk about, it is not clear at all why I should be grateful to Wendy Doniger.

5. The fifth reason is Wendy’s sensitivity to cultural specificity. What does that consist of? You suggest two aspects: one which is not about Wendy but what Ashish Nanady claims and what you say ‘Hindu’ nationalism is; the second is her conviction that “it is impossible to understand Hinduism fully without understanding its close interconnection with Islam. In keeping with this, Doniger has detailed familiarity with the Qur’an and Islamic traditions.” I will, correspondingly, skip the first aspect (in this post). I can always come back to it, if you (or other readers) find it important. Let me, therefore, go to the second aspect.

Again, I am surprised. This time at what you possibly think cultural ‘specificity’ is. In so far as you want to engage in a polemic with your understanding of ‘Hindutva’, I am willing to even endorse this claim and fight alongside you. But that is not what we are doing now. We are meeting each other as intellectuals in a public arena. While simplifications and vulgarized presentations are necessary to reach a wider public than the academics, surely, one should not become simplistic in this process. The issue of cultural specificity, of India for instance, involves a question like the following: “What makes the Indian culture different from, say, the western culture, the African culture…” The answer will explicate the notion of cultural specificity. If Wendy Doniger’s writings explicate the cultural specificity of India, I would definitely be grateful to her. To say that to understand Hinduism ‘fully’ (whatever a ‘full understanding’ might mean here) one has to understand its ‘close’ (as in only the ‘close’ ones? Or as against ‘distant’ ones?) ‘interconnections’ with Islam (would one way influence like, for example, the influence of ‘Hinduism’ on Islam in India be needed to a ‘full’ understanding of ‘Hinduism’ or do they have to be ‘interconnections’?) is to say, as indicated in the parenthetical remarks, pretty much. But none of them, unfortunately, help one understand the ‘specificity’ of the Indian culture.

Besides, while understanding ‘Hinduism’ might help one to understand a part of the Indian culture, I am sure you are not suggesting the preposterous idea that understanding ‘Hinduism’ is the same as understanding the Indian culture!

So, what is there to be grateful to Wendy in this issue? Nothing, I am afraid.

6. Her intellectual openness. You say that she is always “anxious to open genuinely scholarly dialogue”. It is a necessary and desirable property in any intellectual. I do hope that she will exhibit this virtue (that you attribute to her) by responding in a positive fashion to the genuine issues that Rajiv Malhotra has raised in his column on this very board. If I remember rightly, in the ensuing discussion, someone raised the question what Wendy’s response to Rajiv Malhotra’s column was. His reply at that stage was, again if I remember rightly, that Wendy had not responded. Perhaps, you could persuade Wendy to have a dialogue with all the involved parties. That would definitely convince me and others, and if she were to do that, she would definitely deserve my gratitude. (Not a special gratitude, but one which I owe to every intellectual who is open.)

7. The seventh reason you give is that she has (a) popularized ‘Hinduism’ in the English speaking world; and that (b) this view of ‘Hinduism’ has been “complex and subtle”. I agree with you regarding the first point. But a simple ‘popularization’ does not deserve gratitude of course. In and of itself, popularization is a tricky notion: we need to ask what has been popularized, and whether it is worth popularization and so on. Consequently, let us look at (b). You say that her view is complex and subtle. You would be right about the ‘complexity’ of her view. Indeed, to popularize a ‘complex’ view does call for special abilities. While willing to acknowledge this (with some reservations), I am not sure there is agreement that this view has also been ‘subtle’. What would a ‘subtle’ view of ‘Hinduism’ be? That depends, of course, on what the contrast set is. You summarize it thus: “she has tried to avoid the dichotomous options offered by colonialism”. You see these options as “the two strains of colonialist Orientalism — the denigrating strain that sees Indic traditions as degraded, and the romanticizing strain that sees Indic traditions as a source of pure spiritual light” and further detect them in Modern India as well.

I am going to read you the following way: you are not saying that Wendy is per se against ‘dichotomies’ (as though a monism or a trichotomy would be a better option) but against the two strains of what you call ‘colonialist Orientalism’. This is, of course, a good thing. But how has she done this? You make the following remark in your fourth reason: “Doniger emphasizes, and clearly prefers, the pacifistic strain. I consider it one of Doniger’s great services to Hinduism.” Surely, preferring one strain that lives within the Indian tradition (doing so with reference to other living strands within the same tradition) is not the same as propagating a ‘complex and subtle view of Hinduism’. On the basis of this, it would appear to me that one would say she has popularized a partial view of … what? Of ‘Hinduism’ or of ‘Indic traditions’? (It looks as though I was hasty in my earlier post and erred on the side of generosity. It appears that Indic traditions and Hinduism are coextensive in this case after all. But this does not matter for the moment.)

You say, “Doniger has bravely tried to see Indic traditions as human, as manifestations of psychology and culture, like any other tradition.” Should one take these statements seriously or not? I mean, which fool would say that the ‘Indic tradition’ is not “human” and that it is not a manifestation of “psychology and culture” of such humans? What is so brave in insisting on a banal point that no one disagrees with? However, it is comforting to know that Indic traditions are the expressions of the Indian people, their psychology and culture. It is nice too to know that, in this respect, they are “like any other tradition”.

As you can see, it is again difficult to find out what one should be grateful about. Nevertheless, a charitable interpretation could be: the ‘British and the American reader’ should be grateful that Wendy has made ‘Hinduism’ popular. If you look at the discussion generated on the Sulekha board, I have the impression that the jury is still out on the issue whether one should be grateful or not.

Yet, I am perfectly willing, if you are willing to be less hyperbolic, to accept that the interest in ‘Indology’ (in America at least) owes a lot to Wendy Doniger. For this achievement, irrespective of whether she is right or wrong, she definitely is owed gratitude by anyone who cares for the Indic traditions. I do: therefore, I do appreciate the enormous effort she has put in.

In fact, as I understand the issue, this is the reason for Rajiv Malhotra’s article. Not to slander Wendy Doniger but to invite her to have a dialogue with the Indian ‘Diaspora’ (amongst others). The invitation arises through recognition of her extraordinary role in the development of Indology in the United States and out of a genuine appreciation for her efforts.

In other words, I am willing to go along with this reason.

8. “She also tries to avoid the options offered by reactions to colonialism–the unthinking adulation of the west, and the rigid assertion of a dogmatic and inviolable indigeneity–an assertion almost always based on stereotypes”, you say. I must say that you surprise me once again. As a cognitive scientist, surely you should know better than to talk about ‘stereotypes’ in this way. This is not how Social Psychology (whether in the United States or in Europe) looks either at Stereotypes or their role in both cognitive and social life of individuals. If this is your critique of ‘indigenity’, I am afraid it will not wash. However, my argument is not with your notion of ‘stereotypes’ but with your reasons for being too grateful to Wendy. Therefore, let me continue.

Good for her that she “tries to avoid the options offered by reactions to colonialism.” But why should I be grateful to her for this? Has she chalked out a unique path which transcends these ‘alternatives’ without transcending the genuine desires of the people, whose expressions these tendencies are? Does she do this or merely pontificate? It is easy for us all to look down upon these two tendencies, but it requires more than that to figure out the roots of the phenomena and offer an alternative to both. Do not forget, Patrick, that you are talking about the longings of a people, who have reacted this way to ‘colonialism’. I would be grateful to Wendy if she indeed shows where this deep longing comes from and how we could channelize these very powerful desires. She has not Patrick; and neither have you. In its absence, all I see is a sanctimonious attitude of someone who has no stake in a future that a people tries to carve out, but, instead, chooses merely to deride their attempts from the sideline. Do not expect me to be grateful for that.

9. Her refusal to deny sexuality. Here, I must agree with you partially. But by only emphasizing this, she has contributed to towards building a perception that merely ‘eroticizes’ a culture (this is too ‘polite’ a way of saying it, but I will stick to it). Her views could be a corrective, I grant this in all good will, but it cannot become the leitmotif. Given her impact on Indology in the United Sates, she should have been more sensitive and realized that she would not simply be applying a corrective but that her ‘corrections’ would end up as a ‘whole picture’. This reason alone is sufficient to reject your plea. (But with some reservations, as I have already noted.)

10 And thus we come to your last reason. Her students. You refer to one student; so does Rajiv Malhotra. He promises a sequel about her other students, whereas you do not mention more than one. How shall we look at this? That Paul Courtright wrote the book he did wrote because of Wendy or despite her? (I am simply assuming the truth of your assessment because I have not read that book.) I need more convincing arguments on this score.

Let me summarize: I have found one reason (with some qualifications) for which I am grateful to Wendy and another reason (which is held in abeyance). Two reasons are as yet undecided. The other six are not good reasons for being grateful to Wendy Doniger.

I do not care much for ‘Hinduism’; but I do care, deeply and passionately, for the Indian traditions which include the ‘Indic traditions’ as their subset. I care what you, Wendy, and the ‘British and American reader’ think about my traditions. You too, I am led to believe, care what I care about.

It is in this spirit that I have heard you out. It is the same spirit that has pulled me away from my other duties and made me spend almost a day to compose this post. Such dialogues are necessary, perhaps today more than ever before. I have made my disagreements plain and provided you with reasons for my stance. I hope you will find it in you to respond in the same spirit.

  • My academic reading has been in matters of Linguistics, Mythologies & Poetics, having stumbled across this affair & correspondence quite by accident. I found this article to be one of the more sensible that I’ve been reading.
    It seems that the argument arises from a question of whether Dr. Doniger was entitled to comment upon matters of Indian tradition, as an outsider, or worse still, representative of a foreign imperial power. Doniger is clearly heiress to Sir William Jones, Wolfgang von Goethe and all who hove followed in trying to understand a civilization from which their societies had been severed by the fall of Constantinople in the mid C15. Of course she has come to her studies through a path quite different to her predecessors, but by her own account, and the evidence of others, she knows the field of enquiry more than well enough.
    So, what may then be the cause of continued criticism? Tonality? Sympathy for the broad spectrum of humanity she has encountered in her travels & studies? Her feminism or even perceptions of residual Jewishness? Or, is the cause to be found in the ongoing struggle by contemporary Hindus to shake off the remnants of British colonial policies that had denigrated their native religion(s), Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, even the Thomas Church, in all their complex varieties, in favour of Islam or their own cold-blooded version of Christianity?
    Perhaps the concept & practice of Hindutva, like Romuva in Lithuania, may need some further investigation & illustration by Mr. Balagangadhara for westerners, such as myself, to follow some of the arguments adduced.
    I found “The Hindus: An Alternative History” interesting, but also somewhat irritating, as I had wanted a more systematic, lingusitically rich approach: but that’s my preference, and it’s not cause enough to have the writer burnt at the stake.