Parsing The Sacred

An award-winning book on Ganesa by an Emory University professor has factual inaccuracies in its claims on the Puranas, the ancient Hindu texts.


An award-winning book on Ganesa by an Emory University professor has factual inaccuracies in its claims on the Puranas, the ancient Hindu texts.

Paul Courtright’s 1985 book, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings has been the subject of intense criticism by several Hinduism scholars and Hindu religious groups during the past several years. The book, which won a national award from the committee for the History of Religion of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1985, is sharply critiqued in a new book titled Invading the Sacred, which questions the accuracy and objectivity of several leading Hinduism scholars in the United States, most notably Courtright and University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger.

Little India undertook an investigation of two passages in Courtright’s book, whose authenticity was questioned by Krishnan Ramaswamy, one of the editors of Invading the Sacred, in an article in the August issue of Little India. Courtright responded to the criticism in the following issue of the magazine, which subsequently invited the two sides to present evidence to resolve the factual disputes. Little India traded the evidence between the parties before arriving at the conclusions presented here. They were both given an opportunity to respond to these findings.


Little India focused exclusively on the factual accuracy of the two passages ascribed to the Puranas in Courtright’s book. It neither considered, nor was influenced by, criticisms by several Hindu groups, as well as the authors of Invading the Sacred, that sections of the book are offensive or demeaning.

Courtright admitted he erred in asserting in his book that the Linga Purana stated that humans “come from the divine rectum.”

“I stand corrected on the Linga Purana text, which only mentions demons,” Courtright acknowledged.

An examination of the relevant passage in the Linga Purana shows that demons emerged from the divine rectum, “Then out of his buttocks were produced the Asuras (demons).” A subsequent passage in the Purana reveals that human beings are born from the mind of God.

In his book, Courtright also cites the Bhagvata Purana for the claim, but that passage too does not ascribe such an origin to human beings. Finally, he cited Doniger’s book, Hindu Myths, but that citation does not reference the creation of human beings or the divine rectum at all.

Courtright was also challenged on his claim in the book that Daksa committed incest with his daughter Sati. He wrote: “[Daksa] made love to his daughter Sati ‘in the manner of a mere beast.’ This shameful action drove her to burn her own body, that is, commit sati….”

Courtright cites a passage in the Devi-Bhagavata Purana in support of the claim: “[Prajapati] took [the garland] on his head; then placed it on the nice bed that was prepared in the bedroom of the couple. Being excited by the sweet fragrant smell of that garland in the night, the Prajapati engaged in a sexual intercourse! O King! Due to that animal action, the bitter enmity arose in his mind toward Sankara and his Sati. He then began to abuse Siva. O King! For that offence, the Sati resolved to quit her body that was of Daksa …”

While the passage does not explicitly state that incest occurred, Courtright insists Daksa’s intercourse could only be with Sati through a contextual reading of the passage as she is the only woman mentioned in the passage. He also claimed in his article in Little India, “Other versions of the stories of Daksa and Brahma’s seduction of Sandhya — stories told in succession in the Siva Purana and other collections of narratives — sets a wider context for the primal incest.”

Little India’s examination of Devi-Bhagavata Purana passage found that while there is no direct reference to incest, a strained reading of such a rape is possible from the text. Such a reading would be more compelling if other versions of the story hinted at or supported such a context, as Courtright claimed.

However, a review of the Daksa and Sati story in multiple Puranic sources by Little India, including Siva Purana, Vayu Purana, Linga Purana, Brahma Purana, Kurma Purana, Matsya Purana and Bhagavata Purana found that they all ascribed Sati’s self-immolation to her dismay at her father’s insult of her husband Siva.

Courtright did not offer any Puranic source that might provide context for the primal incest. He cited, what he described as a “back story,” in which Siva cut off Brahma’s head because Brahma raped his daughter Sandhya. “In the Siva Purana the story of Danksa is told right after the story of Brahma and Sandhya,” Courtright said, noting from the sequence: “It seems to me a plausible reading that the story of Daksa is a transformed retelling of the story of Brahma’s incest. What does Siva do when he learns of Sati’s immolation? He comes to the sacrifice, in some versions in his form as Bhairava, and beheads Daksa, just as he had beheaded Brahma in the other story.”

A Little India review of the Siva Purana, however, found that the Brahma story follows the Daksa story rather than the other way around. The story immediately preceding the Danksa episode is Tripurasura. The Brahma story relates Brahma’s explicit lust for his daughter Sandhya and it has allusions to Brahma’s pursuit of Sandhya in the form of a deer, during which the deer is beheaded by Siva.

The original Sanskrit text in the Daksa story alludes to “pashukarma.” Courtright noted: “Literally, ‘pashukarma’ means ‘animal act.’ That could mean forcible sex, it could mean ‘doggie style,’ who knows? That’s where the context is important.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledged: “I’m not sure I would say explicitly, ‘Daksa raped Sati.’ But I am persuaded that the story is, among other things, about family relations, father-daughter relations, incestual desire, and that it is a profound story about things that are so powerful and below the level of consciousness that they cannot be named.

“Who knows what Daksa did, he is such an archetypal villain in the puranas I would not put it past him. Daksa was a control-freak, he did not want Siva to have what he could not have in relation to Sati…. I think the storytellers are trying to tell us something by not telling us everything. The project of interpretation is to try to get at not only what is said, but what is not said. Naming these unconscious desires is, of course, the project of psychoanalysis. I understand that people may be offended. People were offended by Freud — some still are — but to paper over the story because it is uncomfortable to us is to dishonor the story.”

Little India limited its examination to these two passages in Courtright’s work. A chapter by Vishal Agarwal and Kalvai Venkat in Invading the Sacred alleges scores of other factual inaccuracies in the book. Little India has not evaluated the validity of these other criticisms.


Several of their criticisms of Courtright’s book center on interpretations, which do not lend themselves to factual assessments. Other critiques by Ramaswamy in the Little India article focused on Courtright’s application of psychoanalysis to Hindu scriptures. However, such theories are widely used by scholars in a wide range of disciplines and we do not consider their application by Courtright inappropriate. New and creative interpretations of old texts give them life and the use of different theoretical approaches, such as psychoanalysis, is legitimate, and indeed, as Courtright pointed out, “Psychoanalytic questions give us another set of lenses through which to look.”

We also reject the argument by some of his critics, including some in Invading the Sacred, that scholars should be especially sensitive to religious subjects. Critical inquiry does not lend itself to consideration of such sensitivities. The standards and measures for scholarship and research are independent of the subject matter.

Nevertheless, Little India’s independent analysis of the two passages based on the Puranas in Courtright’s book does lead to the conclusion that one of the claims is clearly erroneous, which he acknowledges, and the second is strained at best and unsupported by any of the many other versions of the story in the Puranas.

In our opinion, there is nothing fundamentally objectionable about Courtright’s theoretical techniques or even his observations and interpretations, however offensive they might seem to some, so long as they are framed as interpretations. It is representation of these interpretations as flowing from specific Puranic sources, without qualification, and that are unsupported by the citations, that we found problematic.

In his response, Courtright said: “The bottom line is that I wrote the book a quarter of a century ago. If I missed things that I should have noticed, or would notice now, is moot. I’m not in a position to re-write the book. I hope I’ve learned a few things about textual precision in my current work…. If I was wrong, then I was wrong. I acknowledge that. Scholars sometimes make errors. Beating up on an old book seems like a waste of everyone’s time.”

In our opinion, however, on the basis of the two examples investigated by Little India, that the many other inaccuracies in the book alleged by Venkat and Agarwal deserve examination as they go to the scholarly integrity of an award winning work, however old.

By Paul Courtright

I have two brief notes to offer on Krishnan Ramaswamy’s critique of my comments in the last issue of Little India.

First. Ramaswamy is correct. The Linga Purana does not specifically say that humans were created from the divine anus. I stand corrected. As best I can remember from the time I was writing the book, I was struck by the larger notion of the cosmos as an all-inclusive digestive and circulatory system in which all beings are emitted by the divine purusha. There are, of course, many creation stories in the puranas and a full answer to the question of the variety of ways human beings are created would require further research. I should have been more careful. It was an error.


Second. The question is whether the Devibhagavata Purana asserts that Daksa raped his daughter. Here the issue is more complex, and will require a bit of background. Most of the many versions of Daksa’s sacrifice in the Puranas say that Daksa does not invite Siva, his son-in-law, to the sacrifice because Siva is a kapalin or kapalika – one who belongs to a sect of radical ascetic practitioners who meditate in cremation grounds and reject the authority of the Vedas and their ritual traditions. Daksa has other objections as well: Siva has no lineage, he does not treat Daksa with proper respect. Why does Daksa emphasize Siva being a kapalin, and that being one disqualifies him from inclusion in the sacrifice?

Here there is a ‘back story’ that has to be kept in mind. Why did Siva become a kapalin? At a prior time Siva cut off Brahma’s head (or, in earlier texts, Prajapati’s head) and carries it on the end of his trident. Why did Siva cut off Brahma’s head? Because Brahma raped his daughter, Sandhya. The gods asked Siva (or, in earlier texts, Rudra) to punish Brahma. In the Siva Purana the story of Daksa is told right after the story of Brahma and Sandhya. In a temple pamphlet in Hindi that I collected in Kankhal, just next to Haridwar, at the Daksheshwar Temple, the place believed to be where the sacrificed took place, the story is told in the same sequence. Why are these two stories linked?

So, when Sati confronts her father about why Siva was excluded from the sacrifice and says that she is going to abandon the body she received from him and proceeds to immolate herself in the sacrificial fire, or in her yogic fire, as some versions tell it, it seems to me a plausible reading that the story of Daksa is a transformed retelling of the story of Brahma’s incest. What does Siva do when he learns of Sati’s immolation? He comes to the sacrifice, in some versions in his form as Bhairava, and beheads Daksa, just as he had beheaded Brahma in the other story.

Whether the term, pashukarma, “acting like a beast” means “rape” or something else, whether the other person in the Devibhagavata Purana story is Sati or someone else (Ramaswamy supplied a Hindi gloss indicating it was Daksa’s wife, but the Sanskrit does not specify. Is the Hindi commentator simply clarifying the matter, or is he steering the reader from the less palatable reading that the Devibhagavata version left ambiguous?), these are areas where readers might disagree. Clearly, Ramaswamy and I do interpret the text differently.


So, where does this leave us? As to the first point, I made a mistake. I misread the text. As to the second text, I did what all translators must do: interpret a particular passage in the light of the larger framework of the narrative. Here there is room for multiple readings and meanings. A story as complex and multi-layered as the Daksa story must be read, in my view, with the possibility of a number of meanings. The linkage between the story of Daksa and Shiva and Brahma/Prajapati and Siva/Rudra led me to the interpretation I offered in the book.

I have no confidence that my response here will be satisfactory to all readers . On further research I might draw different conclusions. But, for the moment, I’ll stand by my reading.

My critics will continue to insist that I am dishonest, incompetent, and venal. There is nothing I can do about that. My best hope is that people who take an interest in these issues will read the book for themselves and draw their own conclusions. 

By Vishal Agarwal, Kalavai Venkat & Krishnan Ramaswamy

As the Little India report has noted, an extensive examination of the evidence revealed that all four citations that Paul Courtright used to bolster specific allegations about Hindu scriptures were found to be spurious or misleading. This raises important questions about the integrity of the current peer review process in academic Hinduism studies. It also shows the value of including in Hinduism studies as equals, scholars and critics from the community who may not be “licensed” as academics, but are very capable of doing valuable scholarly and critical work. The report also argues for a serious and public examination by impartial scholars of the numerous other substantive issues raised about Courtright’s work by Agarwal and Venkat.


In Ganesa, Courtright alleged that the Linga Purana 1.70.199 and the Bhagavata Purana 2.6.8 look upon human beings as born of the divine rectum i.e. God’s excrement. The cited verses in the Linga Purana talk of how Brahma successively created four classes of beings: devas, asuras, pitrs and human beings in that order. Sequential Verses 212-215 explicitly discuss the birth of Manava (“human-beings”) and Praja (“people”) from the mind of Brahma. The claim about Bhagavata Purana was likewise spurious.

Confronted with the evidence, Courtright now finally admits that he never had evidence about anal origins. But he has not explained why he felt justified in suppressing the explicit Linga Purana verses about human origins from the mind of God.

Courtright claims that the Devibhagvatham records the following: “[Daksa] made love to his daughter Sati in the manner of a mere beast. This shameful action drove her to burn her own body, that is, commit Sati…”.

There is no incestuous rape in that narrative. Courtright responded by claiming that Devi is the only specific female mentioned in the narrative, and since Daksa is shown indulging in a sexual intercourse, it could only have been with her.

However, Daksa’s wife is clearly mentioned. The Sanskrit original uses the word “dampati” clearly implying Daksa and his wife in his private chamber (“nijamandire”). Sanskrit dictionaries such as V S Apte’s, and the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, attest to the fact that “dampati” is a married couple — a compound word made of two parts: jaaya (wife)+ pati (husband). Courtright’s response claims that no wife is mentioned in the Sanskrit original and insinuates ulterior motives to the acclaimed scholar Ramtej Pandeya for translating it as “‘Pati-Patni.”‘

In the absence of clear or plausible evidence to make such a radical claim about a major religious figure, it was incumbent on Courtright to look for a preponderance of evidence from multiple primary sources. The story of Daksa and Sati (or Devi) is narrated in numerous Hindu scriptures. Everywhere, the invariants are the destruction of an arrogant Daksa’s Yajna by Siva, birth of the Devi in the home of Daksa as his daughter Sati, her marriage to Siva against Daksa’s wishes and Daksa organizing a grand yajna in which Siva is not invited (or is insulted). Finally, unable to bear the insult of her husband, Sati immolates herself to destroy her body born of Daksa. As listed in Little India’s report, not one of the seven Puranas (Vayu, Siva, Linga, Kurma, Bhagavata, Brahma and Matsya) and the Ramayana consulted by us even suggest anything about a rape. Otherwise, the Devibhagavata Purana or other Puranas would have clearly stated defilement of her body by Daksa as the cause of her self-immolation.

Yet Courtright, ignoring this mountain of evidence directly relating to Sati, Siva and Daksa, invents an incestuous rape. He tries to bring in a story about two entirely different characters and argues:  “Other versions of the stories of Daksa and Brahma’s seduction of Sandhya, stories told in succession in the Siva Purana and other collections of narratives — sets a wider context for the primal incest.”

The Puranas distinguish clearly between Daksa-Prajapati (father of Sati), and the other Prajapati (Brahma) who lusted after his daughter Sandhya. Later, Courtright claimed that in the Siva Purana, the Brahma-Sandhya narrative precedes and sets the context the for Daksa’s objections to Siva. Additionally, he claimed similarity of detail in the two stories such as Siva beheading Brahma for raping Sandhya, therefore Sati must have been raped too. In reality, Brahma lusts after Sandhya (who is not raped in the Siva Purana as claimed by Courtright) and is censured in the entire length and breadth of the Hindu sacred literature, which discuss even troubling sexual topics bluntly. Had Daksa really raped or lusted after Sati, the Puranas would have censured him for that. Brahma is not Daksa (but his father instead), and Sandhya is not Sati — with both having different individualities and lives. Courtright’s logic is similar to saying that if some African -Americans commit violent crimes, the same guilt can be extended to any particular African -American who happens to be nearby.

Finally, Courtright is quoted in the report as assertings that the word “‘pasukarma”‘ might well mean rape, ‘doggie-style’ or ‘forcible-sex.'” This conveniently suppresses the Pasupata cultural context within which the Daksa-Sati narratives first appear. Klaus Klostermaier (1991) and Annemarie Marten (1998,) explain that the story is essentially of Pasupata origin (pasu = humans, pasupati = Shiva). In this system of philosophy, “pasukarma” is taken as a technical term implying sexual intercourse, and other acts such as liquor consumption, meat/fish eating, etc. Courtright’s interpretations are merely forced insertions.

What is most troubling (as noted in the Little India report) is that Courtright in Ganesa, by not laying out these arguments, strained and contrary to the evidence as they may be, misleads the reader by presenting the “rape” as an established fact in a Puranic text.

Denigrating and biased interpretations by scholars about religious figures in the absence of compelling evidence are not a non-issue. We aren’t objecting to the “offense” caused to sentiments — there is a very real context of hate-speech and discrimination against minority religions like Hinduism. In 2007, a Christian Fundamentalist group claimed that Hinduism was “a pig-pen from the east”, and was “filthy” and “sexually perverted.” Clearly basing itself on Courtright’s description of Ganesa, it characterized Hindu religious practice thus: “‘The penis, (particularly if flaccid), may be adored as Ganesha’s trunk”.’ As Prof. Jeffrey Long has noted, such misinformed hate groups, produce consequences:- “Indeed Hate speech and false information can create a climate in which violence is to be expected… So how long before a crazed gunman attacks a Hindu temple believing Hindus are possessed by demons?…How many children will grow up believing that Hinduism is a “filthy” religion…?” Hindu temples are already fairly routinely vandalized in America. All we are saying that scholars should have hard evidence on an issue before they add to the fund of Hinduphobic hatred in this country.

Little India is to be thanked for its signal contribution to the integrity of academic Hinduism studies, by forcing a focus on the substantive issues raised by non-academic scholars. The current exchange, by exposing serious errors, shows the value of books like Invading the Sacred that take a comprehensive and critical look at the academia from the inside as well as the outside.

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