De-spiritualising tantra - chapter 8-part 2

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This kind of scholarship also reflects the U-Turn syndrome, wherein the scholarship facilitates appropriations while simultaneously denigrating the source traditions. Significantly, it provides theoretical legitimacy to the ongoing Christianization of meditation techniques in which Hindu and/or Buddhist mantras are removed and substituted with either meaningless words, as in Herb Benson’s ‘Relaxation Response’, or Christian words like ‘Christ’ or ‘Amen’.

Christian appropriators can rationalize that the Hindu mantras are made of meaningless sounds, and additionally, that their appropriation would ‘clean’ them from sounds of a woman having an orgasm. The White-Doniger thesis is among many that supply this kind of scurrilous ‘data’ to feed this appropriation.

The book’s political thesis seems to be that Tantra was a secret system used by Brahmins to dupe the lower castes and oppress them. White alleges that whitewashed or soft-core repackaging of Tantra “later came to be seized upon by high-caste Hindu householders throughout medieval South Asia as a window of opportunity to experiment with a double (or triple) religious identity”. White claims that this devious upper caste ploy was “a means to do what one said one was not doing...”. [Emphasis added]. In other words, the entire tradition was one big hypocrisy. Multiple identities, secret rituals and metaphysical hyperbole enabled Brahmins to exert political control via crafty mechanisms, which White compares with espionage:

A comparison with the world of espionage is a useful one: only those of the privileged inner circle (the heart of the Tantric mandala) have the highest security clearance (Tantric initiations) and access to the most secret codes (Tantric mantras) and classified documents (Tantric scriptures).

Lower castes emulated these pseudo-spiritual practices ‘as a means [of] social uplift’. Therefore, the tradition is not only not spiritual, it is also associated with trickery and social oppression across the vast subcontinent. These kinds of analyses are devastating to the Indic tradition’s progressive evolution and the self-concept of Hindus.

Abrahamic religions claim that they are the exclusive custodians of prophecies and canons documenting unique historical events. On the other hand, Indic adhyatmika spirituality, or inner science, tends to be non-history-centric and emanates from the enlightenment experiments of luminaries, of which Abhinavagupta is a very prominent example. Adhyatma-vidya methodology is similar to scientific empiricism, in that a legitimate spiritual tradition is the result of the actual experiences of spiritual masters and these experiences are reproducible by the rest of us in this very life. Therefore, White’s allegations of Abhinavagupta’s packaging of wild sex for the ‘soft-core High Hindu’ consumer market are as damaging as allegations would be against a Western empirical scientist that he fabricated laboratory data to substantiate a theory.

White’s and Doniger’s concepts of Tantra are implicated with ‘overcoding’, which is, according to the use of the word as found in White’s book, a euphemism for duplicity or whitewash. Doniger alleges that Hindus led a hypocritical double life.

Is a system of academic overcoding at work in such scholarship? Do certain scholars live double lives? According to Malhotra, they publicly position themselves as very Hindu-friendly in certain audiences, such as, (i) with pandits in India on whom they are dependent for translations; (ii) with gullible students from the diaspora to cleverly re-engineer them away from Hindu identities; and (iii) with diaspora parents/philanthropists for fund-raising. This overcoding is a mask to cover up their secretly building ‘ideological products’ to show patterns of Hindu decadence, violence, immorality and abuse.

Malhotra claims to remove the scholars’ pretence of being friends of India/Hinduism and exposes their Hinduphobia. He argues:

It is no coincidence that academic writings by David White, Sarah Caldwell, Jeffrey Kripal and many others apply the thesis of highcaste Hindu ‘double lives’ to a massive array of case studies which encompass Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Muktananda, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and Hindu Goddess, among others. These case studies are filled with ‘data’ and convoluted logic. After winning awards their thesis is declared final and closed and those who dare criticize are attacked as being against intellectual freedom! (For expansion of this idea, please read page 83 and 84, chapter 8)

Hinduism, like all faiths, has its problematic aspects. Describing the religion multifariously from within an ecumenical orientation is not a problem for most Hindus. What is disturbing to them is that some high profile scholars allege that these abuses are the very essence of Hinduism, and not an aberration. In contrast, Abu Ghraib has not been framed by the media as a crime committed by Western culture caused by Biblical legends or original Biblical practices. An equivalent thesis would say that the original Biblical practices are essentially about hardcore sadomasochistic oppression and that a subsequent overcoding has been done to make the exploitation of non-Christian infidels and non-White peoples seem soft-core. Those who have dared to do such contrarian scholarship are from the margins—they are unlikely to win important awards and Ivy League chairs.

The charge of Tantra as a system of social exploitation is used by Doniger to frame India’s internal conflicts between ‘tiers’ of society—such as Dalits vs. Brahmins, Dravidians vs. so-called Aryans, women vs. men, minority religions vs. Hindus, and other Indic-specific dyads and contrasts. Malhotra interpreted Doniger’s conclusions in the review of Kiss of the Yogini, as ‘the triumphant tone of the white woman rescuing the native from their culture’. Doniger writes that White hopes by “reconstructing the medieval South Asian Kaula and Tantric traditions that involved sexual practices, [he can] restore the dignity and autonomy of the people who invented them and continue to practice them”. This is the Tarzan-Saving-Natives-from-Danger-in-Jungle trope, also known as the Missionaries-Saving-Heathens-from-Blindness trope.

Malhotra was moved to ask:

1. By what authority are White, Doniger, et al ‘in charge’ of such ‘restoration’ of Indian traditions?

2. By what justification are they privileged to frame the subject in a particular manner as opposed to the many other alternative frames possible?

3. For whose sake is this ‘restoration’ being done?

4. What is the track record of their Judeo-Christian controlled intellectual institutions in achieving ‘restoration’ for other peoples in the past?

5. To whom are they accountable?

There is an obvious inconsistency when White and Doniger are promoting this ‘restoration’ to some ‘imagined original past’ in which ‘Tantra equals sexual magic’, and yet any attempts by Hindus to recover a positively ‘imagined past’ is severely condemned as being chauvinistic and disingenuous.

Malhotra argues:

The hypocrisy cries out for notice: Why is a return-to-the-past that is supervised by Western institutions a good thing, while on the other hand, internally generated perspectives [by Indians] ‘chauvinistic’? This question gives rise to another: Does the difference have to do with who exerts power and for what agenda? In this scenario, when the West controls the agenda, selects the topics and frames the issues, then it’s positioned as positive ‘restoration,’ but when Indians outside Western institutions do the same thing, it is condemned by those in the Western institutions as inauthentic or invalid.

Academic Transgressions Excused in the Name of Saving Civilization

In her review of Kiss of the Yogini, Doniger raises some issues concerning White’s findings, to wit—that they are based on assumptions that cannot be rigorously proven. She asks: “How do we know that the original, supposedly hard-core school was not also interpreting their texts metaphorically”? (For more on what Doniger said, please read page 86, chapter 8)

Doniger acknowledges that a mere possibility of meaning does not imply certainty of meaning. She also points out that White adopts literal meanings inconsistently. (For more on this, please read page 86, chapter 8)

Doniger ends up with a George Bushism (as Witzel would put it) when she claims that White has proven a ‘definite maybe’. But then Doniger suddenly exonerates White’s intellectual transgressions and justifies his thesis on the basis that she finds it politically expedient, even after showing that his hypothesis is inconsistent and unproven. Doniger now argues that, regardless of its scholarly shortcomings, Kiss of the Yogini ‘has a political importance that eclipses reservations of this kind’. She writes:

In arguing for the sexual meaning of the texts, White is flying in the face of the revisionist Hindu hermeneutic tradition that began in the eleventh century, was favored by Hindus educated in the British tradition from the nineteenth century onwards, and prevails in India today. The contemporary Indian view is complicated by a new political twist. Right-wing Hindu groups, in India and in the diaspora, have increasingly asserted their wish, indeed their right, to control scholarship about Hinduism.

Doniger seems to be suggesting, that evidence or no evidence, we should accept White’s thesis because it shows the devious revisionism practised by Hindus for a long time and because it is useful in deflating and denigrating dangerous Hindus today. Bapat criticizes Doniger severely on this point as well, calling her position vitandavada or argumentation that ignores reason in favor of establishing pet theories by repetition. (For more on what Prof. Bapat had to say, please read page 87, chapter 8)

The Dalit Card and Other Expediencies

Tantra practitioners and scholars know that one ancient movement within the tradition sought embodied enlightenment through sexual means. It had two parallel strands, one focusing primarily on consciousness and the other utilizing bodily techniques. (For Rajiv Malhotra’s elaboration on both strands, please read page 88, chapter 8)

White alleges that all this (Abhinavagupta’s reformulation of tantra in the 11th century) was simply a political tool for the upper castes to control the masses. While the upper castes made spiritual claims to cover up their ‘sexcapades’ behind the mask of spiritual language, the lower castes dumbly practised Tantra as wild sexual orgies. The spiritual claims were a mechanism by which high-caste people duped and oppressed the Dalits. By invoking the subaltern tribal or Dalit identity, White and Doniger can claim to be exposing aspects of the Tantric tradition that have been used to exploit the oppressed.

Doniger has insulated herself from valid critiques, written by people such as those featured in section II, who possess modern, well-educated and liberal voices. She claims that the contemporary Hindus who are critical of her are ‘of the Hindutva persuasion’. She carefully identifies her tormentors, as “followers of the recently ousted Hindu Nationalist BJP, with its repressive and purity-obsessed policies”. In short, she dismisses her critics as repressed and obsessed puritans.

She expresses concern about the negative impact on Religious Studies from ‘Hindu fundamentalist attacks on Freudian interpretations’. The Hindu attackers, she writes: “argue that none of these [psychoanalytical] characterizations has any scriptural validity according to Hindu tenets or eminent Hindu scholars”. Doniger notes:

“This position finds some support in Western scholarly traditions [such as] Cantwell Smith [who] argued that no historian of religions should ever make a statement about any religion that some members of that religion would not recognize and accept”. She mentions, mockingly that, “This view is still honored by many conscientious scholars who follow the take-a-Hindu-to-dinner, Parliament-of-world-religions approach.” She adds, emphatically, “It is not, however, the only approach.”

Highlighting the comments used to endorse Kiss of the Yogini is revealing. The first endorsement on the back cover is written by Lee Siegel, who invites the reader to look at the book in terms of ‘magic and sorcery’—words suggestive of inferior cognition and irrationality in the modern Western context. Jeffrey Kripal also applauded the reductionist bias in Kiss of the Yogini for reminding us ‘once again that South Asian Tantra really is about sex, bodily fluids and all’.

White confidently presumes that “much of the Tantric terminology makes sense only if it is read literally”. Malhotra asks a crucial question: “It makes sense to whom?” To contemporary scholars, who reject the spiritual legitimacy of Indian traditions in the first place? Or to contemporary practitioners, who inherently accept the spiritual legitimacy of Indian traditions? An equivalent methodology in the reverse direction, as often asserted by critics of Christianity, is one in which Christian rituals and the doctrine of the Eucharist is reduced to a cannibalistic feast of eating flesh and drinking blood. However, Malhotra notes:

White quickly and assertively rejects doing this to Christianity by using the argumentation strategy of reductio ad absurdum—he rejects this because he says that it would make Christians cannibals. But when it comes to Tantra, he not only accepts what to a contemporary Hindu would be an absurdity, but insists that this is the only way to make sense of it.

He then asks a perplexing question, articulated over and over again within the Hindu-American community: “Why are such unsympathetic academicians, conditioned within biblical traditions, in a position to decide which portions of a text on Hinduism are literal and which ones are not”?

Another critic, the philosopher Sitanshu Chakravarti, has raised questions about several of David White’s ‘literal’ translations. For instance he points out that White reduces the Sanskrit word dravya (meaning material, object or thing) as fluids, particularly sexual fluids. All Hindus, not just Tantrikas, use dravyas ranging from flowers to sweets to clothes, wood and ghee and sandal paste in their pujas and havansthese are all homogenized by White into ‘fluids’. Chakravarti cites a few such suspect translations and their page numbers in White’s book: (For more on this, please read page 90, chapter 8)

Madhu Khanna’s Critique

Malhotra had conversations with a bold critic of such abusive scholarship, Madhu Khanna, a renowned scholar-practitioner of Tantra based in India, and she extensively quoted from her paper, ‘Paradigms of Female Sexuality in the Hindu World. She describes four different representations of female sexuality in Hinduism and emphasizes that these cannot be reduced to any one category to the exclusion of the rest. In describing the Tantric paradigm, she explains the ‘non-dual unity of life’ as follows, “Tantra concerns itself with the series of relationships between the transcendent and real, the macrocosm and the microcosm, the sacred and the profane, the outer and the inner, and weaves them within the framework of its values.”

She explains that each pair of opposites is to be held in mutual tension and neither side of the pair may be collapsed into the other, as that would be a dualistic reduction. This is why both radical realism and pure idealism are considered incorrect ways of understanding Tantra.

Criticizing the reductionist tendency of those stuck in Abrahamic dualities (into which White appears to have slipped), Khanna remarked:

The Western approach that splits the erotic from the sacred appears short sighted and deficient . . . White uses his profane-only lens to collapse the sacred-profane pair into profanity, with the spiritual aspect of the pair getting postured as a deceptive cover for hedonism by corrupt Brahmins. His core theory is that [Hindu] spirituality is a derivative from profanity and was intended for ulterior motives from the beginning. [Emphasis added] (For more on Madhu Khanna’s explanation, please read page 91, chapter 8)

White asserts, “I am a historian of South Asian religions and not a Tantric practitioner . . .” This calls into question his qualifications as a reliable restorer of the tradition. “Would a person who is deaf to certain tones be qualified to restore music played in the past based on simply reading the music scores, and to reject the music as played by maestros as invalid?”


According to many members of the Hindu diaspora, the implication of the White-Doniger thesis for the study of India and Indic traditions has been disastrous. Malhotra summarizes the impact:

1. White gives ammunition to those who attack Hinduism as being a collection of barbaric practices.

2. He reinforces the reduction of Hinduism as fodder for anthropological and psychopathological studies.

3. He tries to undermine Hinduism’s spiritual claims and renders its philosophical texts as fake or hypocritical.

4. He feeds Hinduphobia in the minds of mainstream Americans who see everyday Hindu symbols as weird and/or as representing immoral practices.

5. He provides a template with which to legitimize further data hunting-gathering about Hindus’ alleged violations of human rights, by claiming to have proven that such violations were the original intent and very purpose behind Hindu practices.

6. He plays into India’s caste conflicts by theorizing that Tantric spirituality was a ploy by upper castes to control the masses.

7. He tries to de-legitimize Tantra as a means for Dalit spiritual empowerment.

8. He tries to de-legitimize women’s empowerment through Tantra, a unique and major claim in contrast with the Abrahamic religions, and, hence, a perceived threat to male-dominated
Abrahamic religions.

One of the more interesting asides about Kiss of the Yogini is the fact that Doniger uses the book as an opportunity to discredit any attempts at Hindu constructive theology by attacking it as a project of Hindu nationalists who have “increasingly asserted . . . their right, to control scholarship about Hinduism”; and who think theirs is “the only acceptable view”. Her basic view of her opponents is false. Doniger’s critics neither insist that the spiritual-only view is the only acceptable one, nor that Indians should be the only ones doing Indic Studies. What they do criticize is the attempt to reduce Hinduism to pornography and to wish away the profound spiritual component in Hinduism. As Bapat and Malhotra have noted, Hindu insiders do have the right to constructive theology, as do people of all faiths. Terming this a ‘cover up’ or ‘fascism’ based on speculative findings is clearly intended to delegitimize Hindus’ rightful access to such processes.

Read chapter 8 part 2 from page 81 to 93

Please read the comic strip on page 94 and 95

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

Go to chapter 9

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