Turn of the Turds

Scholars have a professional obligation to engage dissenters, just as their critics are obligated to unequivocally deplore threats against those with whom they disagree.

This month Little India undertook an exercise journalists usually loathe — seek to referee a festering public dispute. Our report, “Parsing the Sacred,” determined that Paul Courtright’s 1985 book, titled Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, which has been fiercely criticized for several years now, has inaccurate references on the Puranas.


We are astonished that the religious studies community resisted addressing these factual disputes for so long. The arrogance and disdain with which some scholars have treated their non-academic critics is nothing short of astounding.

Wendy Doniger, a leading Hinduism scholar at the University of Chicago, for instance, ridiculed one of her critics for hanging around academic conferences “where real scholars gather as jackals hang about the congregations of lions.” Instead of engaging the critiques of her scholarship, she taunted him as an “aufgestllte Mausdrek, a mouse turd standing up on end. You do not even know enough to know how much you do not know.”

Turns out the mouse turds knew a thing or two the academic Brahmans didn’t. Ganesa must be chortling.

Even worse, some critics were publicly bullied. An author of Invading the Sacred, a book critical of several religious scholars, for example, was threatened with exposure to his employer for using the company’s email server for posting his critiques.

Such street epithets and intimidation tactics by scholars, of religion, no less, to silence their pesky critics is appalling and downright bizarre.

That said, Hindus must also respect the traditions of intellectual freedom and inquiry in an academic setting. We reject the proposition that scholars should be sensitive in their treatment of religious subjects. Scriptures in the Hindu tradition are living, breathing documents, open to reinterpretation and reinvention by Hindus and non Hindus alike.

The Puranas are uncharacteristically honest in exploring the deepest taboos and Hindus need not be touchy about perceived slights, offensive treatments and departures from narrow literal interpretations. Few Hindus have any familiarity with the Puranas, precisely because they have become fossilized by mechanical textual readings.

Notwithstanding the identified weaknesses in the scholarship, Courtright’s book on Ganesa is a valuable contribution to the literature on one of Hindu’s most important deities. Likewise, Doniger’s sometimes playful, sometimes acerbic, often lurid discourses on Hindu scriptures have engaged a generation of scholars and opened new vistas in Hinduism studies. Attempts to suppress such scholarship or intimidate these scholars, as occurred with Courtright, whose book on Ganesa was withdrawn under pressure from Hindu radicals by its Indian publisher, must be denounced and resisted.

The public discourse cannot be surrendered to loonies and extremists, who have a chilling effect upon scholars. But surely the one arena where it should be possible to conduct a nuanced, even if occasionally caustic, debate on passionately held views is the academy.

Courtright in his response last month in Little India rightly noted that a university is not an ashram. But nor ought it to be a fortress to hold back dissenters. A commitment to intellectual freedom demands that the academic community step up to its professional responsibilities by engaging and embracing dissent, just as it makes it incumbent upon their critics to unequivocally deplore and counter threats against scholars with whom they disagree.

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