Paul Courtright on Ganesha and Shiva - chapter 5

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In 1985, Paul Courtright, currently in the Department of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, published a book on Ganesha in which he employed particularly Eurocentric categories to analyze Hindu religion and folklore.

Scholarly books on Ganesha may be expected to emphasize stories, rituals, and their spiritual meanings and cultural interpretations. In art books or literature, or in the social sciences, Ganesha is depicted from various perspectives—theoretical, historical, religious and cultural. However, Courtright’s book includes another scheme and infers novel meanings using Freudian analysis. Unfortunately, despite the book’s many positive qualities, it also includes poorly evidenced and pornographic interpretive descriptions of Ganesha, such as the following excerpts:

[F]rom a psychoanalytic perspective, there is meaning in the selection of the elephant head. Its trunk is the displaced phallus, a caricature of Siva’s linga. It poses no threat because it is too large, flaccid, and in the wrong place to be useful for sexual purposes. . . . So Ganesa takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated limp phallus—ascetic and benign—whereas Siva is ‘hard’, erotic, and destructive.

[Ganesa] remains celibate so as not to compete erotically with his father, a notorious womanizer, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter

Ganesa is like a eunuch guarding the women of the harem. In Indian folklore and practice, eunuchs have served as trusted guardians of the antahpura, the seraglio. “They have the reputation of being homosexuals, with a penchant for oral sex, and are looked upon as the very dregs of society.” (Hiltebeitel 1980, p. 162). [...] Like the eunuch, Ganesa has the power to bless and curse; that is, to place and remove obstacles. 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. Ganesa’s broken tusk, his guardian staff, and displaced head can be interpreted as symbols of castration . . . This combination of child-ascetic-eunuch in the symbolism of Ganesa—each an explicit denial of adult male sexuality—appears to embody a primal Indian male longing to remain close to the mother and to do so in a way that will both protect her and yet be acceptable to the father. This means that the son must retain access to the mother but not attempt to possess her sexually.

These bizarre interpretations, wholly manufactured by Courtright, are far outside the tradition and even worse, they caricature and ridicule Hinduism. Because Courtright was confident that he would not be held accountable by peers for manufacturing offensive images about a revered deity of Hinduism, he could candidly admit that he has no evidence for what he says, and then proceed to pronounce his flights of fancy as valid, scholarly interpretations. In other instances, evidence is invented from non-existent textual sources. Such books are not presented as fiction, or even acknowledged as parochial, limited interpretations—they are received by the academy as authoritative scholarly works. They then percolate into the mainstream culture via textbooks, media images, and explanations of Ganesha in American art museums.

Courtright’s book had an unexpected impact when it became a catalyst for waking up the diaspora. One critic wrote a particularly sarcastic piece, mimicking Doniger’s approach but applying it in the reverse direction to interpret Christian symbols and narratives. Using evidence similar to Courtright’s, this anonymous writer offered the following tongue-in-cheek analysis:

Jesus was a filthy and indecent man. He learned some magic tricks from the visiting Persian merchants. The Romans often invited him to perform at their parties, and in exchange, they offered him wine. So he routinely got drunk, tried to be ‘a notorious womanizer’, and was a hobo all his life. Since Jesus’ mother was a prostitute, she did not want to announce the true identity of his father, and had to make up a story for the illiterate nomads. Therefore, Mary claimed that Jesus was born without physical intercourse. So all his life, Jesus guarded the myth of his mother’s virginity and hid the immoral activities of his father and other customers who visited her for sex. The Roman commander played a joke upon Jesus by crucifying him using the cross, symbolizing that the cross was the phallus which his mother must have used for his conception. Thus, his followers today carry a cross as the phallic symbol of his immaculate conception.

The sarcastic scribe then asked, “How would the above be considered if it were written by a non-Christian academic scholar in a country where Christianity is a small minority—just as Hinduism is a small minority in the US?” It is unlikely that it (such work) would be allowed to become the standard educational or reference text for understanding those figures. Multiple scholarly criticisms of such a work [against Christianity], backed by enormous funding from deep pocket Western foundations and organized religion in the West would bury the book. It is also unlikely that the scholar’s career would be enhanced and the scholar rewarded for creatively transcending the bounds of evidence.

You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours

Doniger wrote a highly appreciative foreword to Courtright’s book. Stressing his affinity to her, Courtright wrote in an email to Malhotra, “You are using the term ‘child’ metaphorically, but I’m honored to be considered part of [Wendy’s] kinship group”.

Historically, scholars whose work is considered offensive to the ‘others’ have never seen themselves as consciously ‘hating’ or even disliking the ‘others’. The British always remarked how they ‘loved’ India. Malhotra points out the irony: “Christian proselytizers trying to ‘save’ heathens do it out of love for them; so do the multinationals who ‘love’ the countries where they are devastating local farmers and producers; and so do imperialists trying to eradicate indigenous cultures so as to ‘civilize’ or [provide] ‘progress’ [for] the poor natives.” Such ‘love’ for the ‘other’ absolves one of any guilt for one’s actions and perpetuates one’s presumed superiority. It became known as the ‘civilizing mission’.

Hindu Images: Lascivious, Salacious, and Disheveled

In an introductory textbook on Eastern religions that is used extensively in undergraduate courses on World Religions and Asian Studies, Awakening: An Introduction to the History of Eastern Thought, Dr. Patrick Bresnan writes ‘authoritatively’ about Shiva. Note that the sensationalist prose and imagery he employs has now become a commonly accepted depiction of Shiva in academic circles:

Entering the world of Shiva worship is to enter the world of India at its most awesomely mysterious and bewildering; at least for the non-Indian. In Shiva worship, the Indian creative imagination erupts in a never-ending multiplicity of gods and demons, occult rituals, and stunning sexual symbolism . . . Linga/yoni veneration was not the whole of it . . . Young women, known as devadasis, were commonly connected with Shiva temples, and participated in the rituals, sometimes only in a symbolic fashion; sometimes not. In a degraded form the devadasi became nothing more than temple prostitutes. These extremes were more often to be found among the practitioners of Tantra, that enigmatic antithesis of conservative Hinduism that developed in northeastern India. Some Tantra temples became notorious for all kinds of extreme practices, including ritual rape and ritual murder. In Calcutta, at the Temple of Durga (one of the forms of Shiva’s shakti) there was an annual festival at which many pigs, goats, sheep, fowl, and even water buffaloes would be slaughtered and ritually burned before the statue of the goddess.

This sensationalized, extreme story of rape and murder at Shiva temples is described in an introductory textbook meant for common use. Most Americans go through life burdened with these kinds of stereotypes about exotic ‘others’ and India seems to be at the top of the list for such exotica. Misinformation and ignorance about Hinduism and other non-Abrahamic religions dominate the popular imagination.

Let us reverse the situation to make the point: A hypothetical book titled Introduction to the History of Western Thought that presented a similar discourse about pathologies inherent in Christianity would not be acceptable in college classrooms in India to teach Christianity to Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh students. In that context, an introductory text would not delve at length into the Inquisition in Medieval Europe (or in Portuguese Goa) when thousands of women, and even children, were burned at the stake as heretics under the auspices of the Church. (For further expansion of this idea please read pages 57 and 58, chapter 5)

At the introductory stage of an American student’s learning, depictions and stories about Hinduism must be carefully put into proper context. For instance, discussions of Shiva/Shakti can explore symbolic ideals such as the transcendent meeting of the male and the female—as the Hindu equivalent of the Chinese yin/yang. It is more accurate for students to understand and remember Shiva as Divinity encompassing both male and female—a primary teaching about Shiva shared across India—rather than being bombarded by exotic obscurities that are not central to the religion’s practice. (For expansion of this idea please read page 58, chapter 5)

RISA Lila-1, Rajiv Malhotra’s seminal essay also points out yet another common essentialization
about Shiva in American and Western textbooks—Shiva as ‘Destroyer’. Shiva as an archetype for samhara or dissolution has numerous meanings, including the transcendence of human misery by the dissolution of maya (illusion)—which is why Shiva is associated with yoga. The common mapping of dissolution = destruction is reductionism; it is sensationalized all-or-nothing, black-or-white hyperbole.

Freud could not possibly have the experiential or empirical competence to interpret the multiple meanings of a village woman offering flowers at a humble shrine to Shitala Devi.

In conclusion, the approaches taken by Doniger, Kripal, Caldwell, Courtright, and others indicate that they are obsessed with selectively and rigidly interpreting Hindu images for the purpose of forcibly fitting them onto real and imagined problems of contemporary Indian society. This self-perpetuating, neo-colonial orientation feeds the specious and spurious while starving any real understanding of Hinduism. Add to this that scholars often incorporate their voices into the narrative and the result is a heady brew in which personal traumas and dramas play out in the name of Hinduism. These strip away its multifaceted colors as experienced by its practitioners and replace them with the dull, monochromatic hues of the psychopathologic voyeur.

Read the entire chapter from page 53 to 59

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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