Challenges to Wendy Doniger's Sanskrit - chapter 7

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Malhotra’s article RISA Lila-1also investigated instances of Doniger’s own questionable  scholarship. It proposed that a logical criterion is that a translation must be acceptable as authentic by the community whose tradition is in question—in accordance with the key Indian concept known as purva-paksha. If the intention of the text’s translator is to overrule the practitioners’ interpretations then there should be a rigorous burden of proof on the scholar’s part. Ultimately, a ‘correct’ translation is inseparable from the applicable contexts.

RISA Lila-1 was not written as a criticism of the entire academic work of Doniger, but only specific parts. But it was troubling that there was not a single comprehensive critical evaluation of Doniger’s work, nor any plans to produce such a criticism, despite the enormous importance being given to her work, and the fact that what is at stake is the legitimacy of the insider’s view of the world’s oldest literary tradition. Doniger’s translations of Hindu texts are widely available in paperback publications and serve to inform the layperson’s image of Hinduism.

In this regard, Professor Michael Witzel of Harvard University is a rare exception. Witzel has claimed that Wendy Doniger’s knowledge of Vedic Sanskrit is severely flawed. Malhotra opined that given Doniger’s stature, “Witzel’s claim seemed as audacious as saying that the Pope was not a good Catholic.” When Witzel was publicly challenged to prove his claim, he published examples of Doniger’s ‘Sanskrit mistranslations’ on the Web.118 An anonymous source noted:

Witzel was privately reprimanded for being so critical of the latter day ‘Queen of Hinduism’. He was blackballed in disregard of his right to criticize such blatant blunders, especially given the clout and power enjoyed by Wendy. If Gods, Goddesses, and saints can be deconstructed by her, then why should her work be exempt from criticism?

This anonymous scholar led the diaspora to Witzel’s critiques that had previously been known only within a small section of Sanskrit scholars. The scholar hoped to bring this to wider public attention in order to broaden the debate. A firestorm erupted from Doniger’s camp when RISA Lila-1 merely summarized one scholar’s online criticisms of her translation capabilities. Witzel’s criticisms of Doniger’s Sanskrit translations are reproduced below so that the readers can decide if such criticisms should be taboo, and whether or not critics are entitled to point out the shortcomings of the powerful without being denounced as blasphemers.

Witzel on Doniger’s Translation of the Rig Veda (For more on this please read page 67, chapter 7)

Witzel on Doniger’s Translation of the Jaiminiya Brahmana (For more on this please read page 68, chapter 7)

Witzel on Doniger’s Translation of the Laws of Manu (For more on this please read page 68 and 69 and Endnote specified in the section, chapter 7)

There was a feeling expressed in many comments to RISA Lila-I that RISA scholars should have taken up these criticisms more seriously, given that RISA and the AAR support critical inquiry with open minds. At the very least, a panel of scholars, whose careers are outside her influence, should have critiqued Doniger’s work because of her enormous power in academe. Regretfully, and much to the detriment of the field, no further open-minded analyses occurred.

Hushing up criticisms of powerful scholars’ works is not an approach that demonstrates academic rigor and fair-mindedness. Shutting critics up is inconsistent with academic freedom. Unfortunately, the power structure vested in the establishment has thus far prevailed. The messengers are shot and the abuses continue garrulously.

Androgynous One-Legged Goats and Other Unmanifest Beasts

Prof. Antonio de Nicolas offers a humorous review of Doniger’s translations: Wendy […] wrote her Rg Veda putting my translations next to hers. By giving ‘maska lagao’ to me, she avoided a bad review . . . The theoretical headings she uses for the Rg Veda are arbitrary . . . the jewel is her translation of ‘aja eka pada’. Literally it means ‘aja’ = unborn, unmanifest, ‘eka’ = one, ‘pada’ = foot, measure. It is the unmanifest one foot measure of music present in the geometries of the ‘AsaT’, meaning, the Rg Vedic world of possibilities where only geometries live without forms. Well, Wendy translates it as ‘the one footed goat’ because ‘aja’ in Hebrew means goat. What is a one footed goat doing in the Rg Veda?

Nicholas Kazanas, a European Indologist, examined Doniger’s obsession with sexual connotations. Referring to her book, Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts, Kazanas writes that she seems to be obsessed with only one meaning—the most sexual imaginable:

O’Flaherty [a.k.a. Doniger] seems to see only one function . . . of fertility and sexuality, copulation, defloration, castration and the like: even bhakti ‘devotion’ is described in stark erotic terms including incest and homosexuality (1980: 87–99: 125–129). Surely, erotic terms could be metaphors for spiritual or mystical experiences as is evidenced in so much literature?

Similarly, RISA Lila-1 also points out how she intentionally destroys any shades of meaning in deference to her preferred one:

Doniger claims to be championing the diversity of literary interpretation. In actual fact, given her cartel’s power over the legitimizing of her interpretations and turning them into canons of ‘theories’, the opposite effect has resulted: Her approaches have become more than just trendy speculations and are being propagated as the hard facts about Hinduism. In Asceticism and Eroticism in the Myth of Siva, problematic translations and glamorous gimmicks help to sell books, such as this alluring description advertising the book in bold font, “One myth tells of how Siva and Parvati make love for a thousand year . . . ”

RISA Lila-1 cites as examples three specific terms or concepts that are commonly and fabulously confounded by Doniger. These distortions then get widely disseminated by her supporters.

Tantra Equated with Sex

Tantra has far more complex meanings than simple sexual connotations, yet the standard depiction by the Doniger school suggests that Tantra equals sex. (For more on this please read page 70 and 71, chapter 7)

Linga = Phallus

Doniger defines linga as ‘the phallus, particularly of Siva’. She makes no attempt at nuance or to explain the diversity of interpretations, and the levels of meanings in different contexts or at various stages of practice. (For more on this please read page 71, chapter 7)

Maithuna Essentialized as Sexual Intercourse

Doniger’s glossary over-simplifies other Sanskrit terms by giving them reductionist definitions. For example, the term maithuna, like its English equivalent ‘intercourse’, has social as well as sexual connotations. (For more on this please read page 71 and 72, chapter 7)

Read the entire chapter from page 66 to 72

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