Confronting Indology – Part 2

Confronting Indology – Part 2

by Ram Kumar - Jun 4, 2016 02:53 PM +05:30 IST
Confronting Indology – Part 2Devotees at a temple/Getty Images
  • When we now look at the works of Indologists like Wendy Doniger , Sheldon Pollock and their minions, we see that they are using fairly standard “critical theory” techniques to the study of Hinduism.

    Since Marxist theory is proclaimed to be universalist, the belief is that India is also susceptible to such tendencies, regardless of whether there is any evidence for it from India’s past.

    There are disagreements between Marxists of various stripes within the humanities as well. Two broad camps could be ‘classical Marxists’ and ‘postmodernists’/ ‘sub-alternists’.

Having gone through the background in the first part , we can now start to see where western ‘Indology’ comes from. Purely from an academic point of view, of someone wishing to do what would pass in the social sciences and humanities as “original” work, the application of this heady “critical theory” using the tools of psychoanalysis and deconstruction to Hinduism is highly tempting.

Notice that Felski’s characterization of critique (she’s a practitioner herself) has nothing to do with Indology in particular; it is a general view of how it functions in all kinds of “area studies” in the humanities and social sciences.

When we now look at the works of Indologists like Wendy Doniger , Sheldon Pollock and their minions, we see that they are using fairly standard “critical theory” techniques to the study of Hinduism. Consider the use of psychoanalysis on Ganesha by Paul Courtright in his book “Ganesha: Lord of obstacles, Lord of beginnings”; for example, in the following sort of phrase from page 124:

... Ganesa’s mother.. Offers the prize of a mango to which of her sons can go around the world first. Ganesa wins by circumambulating her and eats the fruit and then gets beheaded. …. The mango is a vaginal symbol. Hence Ganesa’s eating the fruit is an act of incestuous possession of the mother for which he is punished by beheading, symbol of castration, and his celibacy is his punishment for acting out his incestuous desires...

We can clearly see the connection to this and the techniques developed in the “Authoritarian personality”; a standard mapping of authoritarian father to Shiva, assignment of ‘castration’ to some suitable symbol, the ‘oedipal complex’ etc. The obsession with penises and phallic symbolism that Doniger is fond of comes from the writings of Lacan; for instance:

Whereas for Freud women really are in a sense castrated,.., the sense in which women are castrated within the Lacanian framework has more to do with their perceived powerlessness in relation to the phallic structures of signification and authority..

Similarly, everything that Malhotra analyses Pollock to be doing through his Indology: removing the sacredness from Sanskrit texts, or connecting aesthetics with dominance and fascism, or looking for ‘hidden meanings’, or removing ‘adhikara’ from traditional Sanskrit scholars and even the original authors of the texts, or declaring that the oral tradition has no value; only text has value are seen to be fairly standard tropes for critical theory and come from the ‘foundational ideas’ of the field.

Of-course, here one needs to iterate the groundbreaking work Malhotra has done in going through Pollock’s works and extracting the essence of what Pollock’s conclusions are. Even though Pollock doesn’t write in the convoluted obscurantist style of some of the most egregious critical theorists, he is far from succinct or clear in his writings. It takes a lot of patience to go through this and extract the salient points as Malhotra has done in TBFS, or as Ashay Naik does in his excellent analysis of Pollock’s ‘Deep Orientalism’.

The same can be said for ‘historians’ ‘reassessing’ the legacy of Aurungzeb, who is a good target to take on for a critical theorist because of his status as a uniquely genocidal figure that gives the Hindu majority some claim of victimhood. Since Hindus are the majority, and Muslims the minority now, by axiom 4, it is clear that the critical theorist has to come from the Muslim side. By axiom 1, it has to be against the dominant belief, which is that Aurungzeb is a genocidal maniac. By axiom 3, it will seek to overturn existing narratives by extracting other readings and “problematizing” the existing beliefs. “Problematic” is a phrase often used by such ‘scholars’. By axiom 2, it will seek to have the final word, and write the final textbooks. By axiom 5, any opposition to this ‘analysis’ will be met with intolerance; by declaring others as fascists, and even preventing them from responding as we have seen all too often in left-controlled spaces.

All of the other provocative literature we see on India, from the ‘alternative readings’ in “300 Ramayanas” (regardless of whether there is an empirical evidence to support such alternative readings) to ‘Alternative readings of Durgashtami’ that posit Durga as a ‘sex worker’ and Mahishasura as a ‘Dalit king’ regardless of empirical evidence, also hew to these techniques from critical theory, designed to “demolish the cherished beliefs of others”, all in service of the “progressive political project.”

The funny thing is that in all of the controversies that have erupted regarding Doniger or Pollock, the academic side does not mention that they are critical theorists who are taking a certain postmodernist Marxist, political view. It wouldn’t serve their purpose as they have to make their view seem universal and the only reasonable interpretation.

They will also wear the mantle of ‘scientific enquiry’ even though they violate the most basic practices of the scientific method that relies on testing hypotheses using empirical data, and depends on the existence of an objective truth. This is why, those who practice “critical theory” may deny it, but it can easily be seen that this is the formula being followed.

It is also clear why a figure such as Rajiv Malhotra, who exhorts India to develop a ‘grand narrative’, and hews to the conventional view of Hinduism and Hindu history, would be branded a ‘fascist’ or ‘Hindutvadi”. It is clear from our brief review of critical theory that its very purpose is to oppose the ‘conventional view’ that carries within it the toxin of ‘nationalism’.

Of-course, the trenchant opposition to nationalism comes from a peculiarly European history of extreme violence connected with nationalism and the bigotry that went with it. But since Marxist theory is proclaimed to be universalist, the belief is that India is also susceptible to such tendencies, regardless of whether there is any evidence for it from India’s past.

Just like in hindsight “Hitler should have been stopped”, the Marxist postmodernists think that theirs is a noble project to prevent any future Indian fascism that may result from any revivalism of Hindu pride or history or victimhood that could give rise to nationalism, as it did in Germany.

However, the problem with this view is that it is fundamentally dishonest as it seeks to concoct narratives and undermine ‘truth’ and facts, such as they may be, in the service of this supposedly nobler goal. They really appear to believe what Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, said: “The truth shall set you free, but a little lie might have kept you out of jail in the first place”.

The history of Marxism provides no confidence that Marxist theory can prevent violence as every Marxist society has experienced brutish levels of violence once Marxist dogma takes hold and the web of deceit that accompanies it consumes everyone in the end.

In fact, Marxism has a higher body count than even Nazism, which is why Marxists investigating Hindus for fascist tendencies is like the Catholic church analyzing Buddhists for pedophilic tendencies. And even if peace were to be attained via dishonesty, propaganda, lies, distortions, and fabrications, it is a forced peace that falls apart when the tyrannical regime implementing it collapses, like we saw in Yugoslavia or Chechnya.

In the era of Internet, it is seems even more quixotic that the Marxist project of denying history will even be successful; even in India, several decades of Marxist history fabrication did not prevent the rise of Modi, which must be seen as an abject failure of the left’s strategy to prevent ‘fascism’ by their own standards.

Besides, if one were to ‘stop Hitler’, it would seem obvious that the way to do it would be to prevent the killing and pogroms, not by trying to insinuate that the Ottomans are owed a debt of gratitude by Mozart, or that Bach’s fugues were proto-fascist (oops, someone did that already).

We have necessarily simplified the role of critical theory and postmodernism for the purposes of this article. Just as the Chinese communists disagreed with the Soviet communists, or the CPI(M) disagrees with CPI, there are disagreements between Marxists of various stripes within the humanities as well. Two broad camps could be ‘classical Marxists’ and ‘postmodernists’/ ‘sub-alternists’ (Subaltern is derived from Gramsci’s work and is supposed to refer to populations that are outside of the ‘hegemonic power structures of society’ and thus ‘denied a voice’).

There is tension between the two camps because the belief in multiple narratives and the postmodernist critique of European enlightenment (of-course, postmodernism holds that everything, including ‘science’ and ‘rationality’, is a ‘social construct’ and springs from a hegemonic power structure established by White European men) threatens the Marxist project in the ‘third world’ countries where the battle against ‘primitive’ religion continues to excite the classical Marxist.

Paradoxically, as educated Hindus naturally gravitate to the more abstract philosophical aspects of Hinduism rooted in the Vedanta and the Bhagavad Gita, the postmodernists have reacted out of alarm that Hindus are uniting and forging a new nationalism (‘neo-Hinduism’) that has to be undermined by appealing to the heterogeneous practices of folk Hinduism, which classical Marxists were critiquing in the first place!

The fear for the classical Marxist is that Hindutva is equally supportive of the folk tradition (threatened as it is from predatory Christianity or Islam), which makes the sub-alternist position indistinguishable from that type of Hindutva position. On the other hand, all of this annoys the sub-alternists who are trying to not only fight Hindutva, but also shush everyone into silence to see if they can ‘hear’ what a ‘subaltern’ might be actually saying.

Further investigation is required to accurately place Pollock; he broadly seems to belong to the classical Marxist camp even though he is not uninfluenced by postmodernist thinkers such as Derrida, who as we see later, is held in dim respect by many. Doniger and the like belong to the postmodernist/subalternist camp with a preponderance for using Lacanian psychoanalysis, which as we will see later, is non-scientific and has been accused of being utterly fraudulent.


What then is to be done? It is obvious that the hijacking of Indian history has to be confronted. Rajiv Malhotra has exhorted traditional Sanskrit scholars to wake up, get out of their silos, and do an uttarapaksha of Pollock. However, is this necessary, and will it work? As we have seen, critical theory exists as a secondary to the real texts (by axiom 2) and real ideas, and has no independent existence. S. Ganesh, in his article, cautions Malhotra by saying

“But how would have Krishna reacted if Arjuna had been over-zealous to battle the sons of Dhritarashtra even before the Pandava side was fully prepared?”

But the more relevant lesson from the Gita might be to understand that just as man is fooled by the material world which is but a mere shadow of the spiritual world, so too is critical theory the maya to the actual texts and philosophies. As such, there is certainly a battle needed to make the public aware of the need to not confuse what “critical theory” says to the actual tradition itself. And in a world where “critical theory” has become the dominant academic paradigm, confronting its modus operandi is definitely required. But how can this be achieved?

Pollock is merely one termite from the termite hill that is critical theory. If traditional scholars have to engage critical theorists, they may encounter statements such as

“Although there seem to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesa explicitly performs oral sex, his insatiable appetite for sweets may be interpreted as an effort to satisfy a hunger that seems inappropriate in an otherwise ascetic disposition, a hunger having clear erotic overtones.”

Pollock did not utter these words, but Courtright, another Indologist, did in “Ganesha: Lord of obstacles, Lord of beginnings”. Will someone need to explain to our traditional scholars what “oral sex” means? I say this partially with my tongue in cheek, only because I respect our scholars, and am familiar with the cultural milieu in which they live where even the discussion of sex is considered rather cheap and vulgar, what to speak of “oral sex”.

Of-course, in America, such is not the case, especially after Bill Clinton’s escapades, of which blow-by-blow accounts of the job his intern was performing were enumerated in nauseating detail in the media. Even I, neither prude nor cultured Sanskrit scholar, had to face extreme discomfort, embarrassment, and disappointment at multiple levels to explain to my newly arrived wife what was going on.

Of-course, any protest from Hindus about the eroticization or sexualization of their beliefs is met with the arrogant response that such Hindus are ‘homophobic’, or ‘prudish’, and that itself is due to their ‘colonization’ that these Marxists, armed with psychoanalysis and critical theory will liberate them from.

While Pollock may not have uttered what Courtright did, Pollock has admitted to erotic fantasies of the Goddess Saraswati (which caused even his humanities-educated, Marxist-sympathizing interlocutor to flinch for just a few seconds), Kripal and Caldwell have written entire books purely on wild sexual speculations based on standard tools of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Doniger is well known to see “sex” whenever “Hinduism” is mentioned.

In fact, in a twitter exchange, Christine Fair, a professor of South Asia studies who studied at the University of Chicago, mentioned the trauma her 9 year old brother suffered in Doniger’s house during a Christmas party (thanks to Bjorn Biglund and Sven Smälgand for the screenshots):

This, then, is the state of mind of the people who our traditional scholars have to engage with. Will the engagement be useful?

In addition to “oral sex”, will our traditional scholars also need a debriefing on “dildos”?

I mean, must we force them to sully themselves in this manner? How many dips in the Ganga will they need to purify themselves again? At the very least, shouldn’t we wait for a few years till Modi has had a chance to clean up the Ganga?

From the previous section on ‘critical theory’ and the nature of the modern discipline of ‘critique’, there is little reason to be optimistic on countering ‘critique’ by traditional arguments that logically strive for the “truth”, such as they may be. Given that ‘critique’ takes the position of opposing what this truth is, even by jettisoning truth claims itself by saying there is “no objective truth, only narratives”, it appears that the strategy of uttarapaksha may be futile. Ganesh hints at this in his article when he says

In the Indian debating tradition, the first step is to establish the pramanas (the methods and means by which knowledge is obtained). Then we embark on purvapaksa (a study of what the opponent says) and finally move to siddhanta (a rebuttal to the opponents; also called uttarapaksa). The first imperative step of establishing pramanas is missing in The Battle for Sanskrit.

What Ganesh means here are that there must be consistent ground rules and agreements on the methods and means by which knowledge is obtained. As Kalavai Venkat shows in his article, an evolutionary biologist cannot have a reasonable debate with a theological Christian because the biologist cites empirical evidence whereas the Christian cites the Bible. Our discussion of critical theory should make clear by now that Pollock is not operating in the same axiomatic system that traditional scholars of Sanskrit (even given their heterogeneity) operate in. Since the critical theorist rejects what the texts say, and the authority of author of that text, and looks for “hidden meanings” and “subtexts” via deconstruction, their axioms are not going to be in agreement. Indeed, attempting to refute Pollock on the basis of any pramana from any school of Hindu philosophy is akin to attempting, in chess, to attack and corner your opponent’s black-square bishop with your own white-square bishop.

Confronting Indology – Part 2

Or, to put it in popular media terms (media studies is another favorite haunt for critical theorists because media provides, if you will excuse this crass appropriation of a capitalist hegemonic expression being applied to so noble a cause as giving voice to the subalterns, a “target rich environment”), countering Pollock through the internal logic of Hindu philosophy would be like trying to win an argument at Monty Python’s famous argument clinic.

As the John Cleese character says, “if I have to argue with you, I must take up a contrary position”, which is precisely the purpose of ‘critical theory’ in general.

For another instance, if Aurungzeb’s court historian wrote about the destruction of temples and the slaughter of the infidels, then a ‘critical theorist’ masquerading as a historian will have to take a contrary position and argue why that wasn’t really the case.

A genuine historian who believes that written histories, especially from the recent past, are representative of facts as they happened, may think that more vociferous readings of these texts or providing other texts that corroborate will win the argument with the ‘critical’ historian, while in fact the opposite will happen from the ‘critical’ historian, since it is not failure to understand the written word that motivates the ‘critical’ historian to take the opposite viewpoint. Indeed, these arguments simply appear as the interaction between, say an American speaking in English to a foreigner who doesn’t understand English. The American may be tempted to say the same thing more loudly or more clearly, but the problem isn’t in the hearing!

An example of how raising the volume backfires can be found in the recent hard-hitting rebuttal from Shourjendra Nath Mukherjee in Kafila. In rebutting Prof. Paranjipe’s charge that scholarships should be provided per students’ needs instead of caste, Mukherjee writes:

Are the students being paid sufficiently for their research? From a personal experience I can tell you that going to the national archive from DU, North Campus, having lunch and then coming back takes around 200 Rs daily. That is 6000 Rs in a month. There are a lot of other expenses incurred in photocopying, buying stationary, eating regularly and so on. But I am being paid just Rs 5000. How am I going to do my research then? ”

He mentions photocopying, and doesn’t attach much importance to it. But a careful, critical reading of this passage illuminates the importance of photocopying to a budding historian armed with critical theory. For, in addition to the miracle that is the technology of photocopying itself, the ability to vary the contrast and brightness on a photocopier is a priceless advancement. As anyone knows, one can make the copy darker by moving these sliders around. However, if the sliders are cranked all the way to the left (hopefully that is the direction of darker/contrastier in JNU photocopiers), the dark print starts bleeding terribly and the letters become undecipherable, while at the same time, the white space between the lines and around the text reveal all sorts of interesting patterns that a critical historian will find crucial for extracting subtext from.

Electrical engineers may dismiss this as “noise”, but it is clear from the very terms engineers use such as “boosting signal”, “suppressing noise”, that the field is hegemonic in the extreme and is full of oppression of parts of the spectrum that are not favored and “othered”. Not surprisingly, the national academy of engineering’s own study confirms how misogynistic, racist, and privileged the disciplines of engineering are. Hence, the use of clarification is a double edged sword that can be turned against ‘truth peddlers’ by a wily critical theorist. Also, the use of technology developed by these hegemonic, oppressive engineering armies of capitalism against that system itself is a most satisfying act of subversion, not unlike the elation felt by jihadis who use kuffar technology against the kuffar themselves.

So merely making the lettering of the texts darker will not lead to dialogue with critical theorists, as they are not interested in the text at all, but the subtext.

To be continued

Ram Kumar is a senior scientist in a large Fortune 500 corporation. He holds a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, is well published in his field including two monographs, more than two dozen papers in journals and conferences, and holds more than a dozen patents. He tweets at  @RamKumar1133

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