An Independent Review of Paul Courtright's book on Ganesa - Chapter 17 part 1

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Editors’ Note:

In this chapter, Vishal Agarwal and Kalavai Venkat provide a detailed review of Paul Courtright’s book, Ganesa, Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. Their analysis raises very troubling questions about the quality and integrity of Courtright’s scholarship. Nevertheless, Courtright, Doniger, and her followers, continue to evade these questions about methodology by demonizing their critics.

Doniger has recently adopted an interesting new tactic to silence criticism while simultaneously appealing to American liberals. She has started comparing those who criticize her to fundamentalist Christians opposing the teaching of Evolution in schools. She casts herself in the role of Darwin, as a courageous ‘scientist’ being attacked by obscurantists who are unwilling to deal with empirical evidence. The allegation is that her critics are irrational. This charge is over and above her prior allegations that her critics—along with their deities and spiritual traditions—are violent and immoral.

To enlist liberal sympathies against the Indian–American minority, Doniger disingenuously positions the debate as between scientific reason, represented by her school, and unreason, represented by the Hindu diaspora.

Ironically, most Indian-Americans who have criticized Doniger’s scholarship are scientists or professionals with considerable technical training, while Doniger and her cohorts are typically trained in the humanities, and questionably, at that. In addition, many critics within the Hindu diaspora have had lifelong instruction in many Indian languages and in Sanskrit. They have, importantly, knowledge of multiple versions of narratives based on regional differences, chronology, or schools of thought, besides a culturally rooted understanding of texts.

In an interview with a local American newspaper, posted on UChicago’s public relations website, Doniger engages in undisguised us-versus-them branding and insinuation by misrepresenting her critics’ positions. The newspaper reported that Doniger:

sees some parallels with the debate in Kansas about how much teaching on creationism should be allowed in the classroom. ‘This same fight is going on in my field,’ Doniger says. ‘Not literally, of course, about Darwin and the Hebrew Bible and Genesis, but whether the scholarly attitude of the events in the history of Hinduism or the faith attitude to the history of the events in the history of Hinduism is the one that should be taught in school. There’s a very close parallel.’

The ‘fight going on in [Doniger’s] field ‘is not a battle between modern scientific approaches, represented by RISA et al, versus a tradition-bound obscurantist Hindu diaspora. It is a debate
between, on the one hand obscure, arbitrary approaches to Hindu Studies based on Eurocentric paradigms and poor evidence, which make unverifiable inferences about the meanings’ of the events in the history of Hinduism’ versus an approach to Hindu Studies that insists on rigorous training, accuracy in translation, independent peer-review and cultural authenticity. The reader should judge for herself whether Doniger is justified in calling her followers’ approach to Hinduism ‘scientific’, i.e. comparable with Darwin or even ‘historically accurate’. On the one hand, Courtright’s book, carrying Doniger’s endorsement, won a prestigious history prize. Courtright has also tacitly compared himself to noted historians and chroniclers like De Tocqueville and Myrdal, even though he is not trained as a professional historian. Courtright’s work was supposedly peer-reviewed by other Western academic scholars prior to publication to ensure scientific rigor in the use of evidence and theory. On the other hand, this chapter demonstrates the value of independent peer-review, when the academic peer-review system is broken. The reader can judge for herself whether Courtright’s book is, in fact, scholarly and evidence based; or relies upon fabricated data, shoddy research and arbitrary theorizing—dressed up with a scholarly gloss to disguise prejudice.

Introductory Remarks:

Background and Importance of Courtright’s Book

In the years 2003–2004, a fierce controversy involving Hindu- Americans on one side and certain Indologists on the other, broke out over Paul Courtright’s book on the Hindu deity Ganesha. The controversy gathered steam in November 2003 when a chapter of the Hindu Students Council (HSC), at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, started an online petition criticizing the book. The petition reproduced several passages regarding Lord Ganesha from Courtright’s book that were deemed pornographic in nature. Within a matter of days the petition successfully attracted almost 7000 signatures. Unfortunately some anonymous signatories took advantage of the privacy that the Internet offered them and posted death threats to Courtright on the petition. The HSC members who started the petition immediately took if off the website before the situation got out of control. Meanwhile Motilal Banarsidass, which had published the Indian reprint of the book, withdrew it from circulation before the controversy reached Indian shores. The publisher also apologized to the protestors for hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus.

These two developments in turn raised a storm among a section of scholars of South Asian Studies in the American academic community. They went on to denounce the publishers and protestors as ‘Hindu fundamentalists’ bent on damaging freedom of speech in American Universities by intimidating the author of a ‘scholarly’, ‘sensitive’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘peer-reviewed’, and ‘excellent’ book.

Courtright’s book cannot be ignored and it is in fact a prominent yet controversial Indological publication for several reasons outlined below. First, the text bears a Foreword by none other than Wendy Doniger, who currently acts as the reigning Czarina of Indological Studies in the United States. She is a cult figure for a very large number of her students, who have a profound influence on how India and Hinduism are depicted at American Universities. Even those who are not her students, nevertheless feel proud of their association with her, such as Courtright. Second, the book has received a national award for its presumed excellence.

Third, the dissension actually prompted Oxford University Press, one of the most reputed academic printers in the world, to publish a 2003 reprint of the book in the West.

Fourth, its reprint in India was brought out by Motilal Banarsidass, the largest publisher, exporter and distributor of Indological books in the country. As a result, the book was also noticed and commented upon in India. We will refer to some of these reviews in our own extensive comments here.

Fifth, it appears that perverse descriptions of Ganesha from the book have started to creep into mainstream society in the West. For instance, in a recent exhibit on the Hindu deity Ganesha arranged by a museum in Baltimore, the book served as a seminal text that was quoted in citations accompanying the displays.

Sixth, since the publication of the book, Paul B. Courtright has been acknowledged as an authority on the subject of Ganesha. This is evident from the way in which numerous other writers of books on the deity not just acknowledge his help and guidance; they also often quote his text either approvingly or at least in a neutral manner. Conversely, the list of people whom Courtright acknowledges in his book for their help reads like a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ in the world of Hinduism studies in the United States.

Seventh, the book is derived, at least in part, from the author’s Ph.D. thesis and therefore should be considered a result of intensive research. The thesis was completed in 1974, eleven years before the publication of the book. It is reasonable to assume that the book therefore contains the fruits of his intensive research as a doctoral student, and perhaps a lot of other subsequent research in the eleven years thereafter. Moreover, the author has published several journal articles on themes related to the subject matter of his book.

Eighth, in the wake of this controversy, a number of professional scholars of Hinduism Studies and in related fields have actually gone on record with whole-hearted praise of the book. Such academic support not just defends Courtright’s right to free speech; it actually praises his book for its content and analyses.

Ninth, Courtright has done better professionally than most scholars in Hinduism studies. He is currently a tenured professor and former co-chair of the Department of Religion at Emory University; a feat attributable to the accolades his book has drawn in the past.

Tenth, a cursory search on WorldCat and other electronic catalogs shows that approximately 300 college and school libraries in North America alone have a copy of his book on their shelves. This is a large number for any Indological publication and attests to the widespread acclaim and popularity that his text has attained in American academia, almost to the point of canonization.

Finally, a sourcebook on Hinduism and Psychoanalysis cites long extracts from his book to explain the father-son relationship in the Hindu society! These citations actually constitute some of the most obscene and offensive sections of the book. Obviously according to the
editors of this sourcebook, Courtright’s psychoanalysis provides seminal understanding of family relationships amongst Hindus!

Being such an important book also means that the controversy raises many other issues besides the question of free speech and academic freedom. In our review, we restrict ourselves to the issue of Paul Courtright’s misuse of primary data from Hindu texts for developing his theses. (For more on the methodology, please read page 194 and 195, chapter 17)

Psychoanalysis and Indology in the United States: When the Cigar becomes a Phallus

Sigmund Freud had a lifelong relationship with cigars. He was rarely photographed without one between his lips. It is said that he enjoyed as many as twenty of them every day. When his friends suspected that he was addicted to cigars, he argued that they were a very private aspect of his life that should be insulated from psychoanalysis by others. This disagreement with peers supposedly gave rise to a statement at times attributed to Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” The implication being that people should not see something else in his cigar since it really was just a cigar.

What we are referring to is the complete Freudianization of Indological parlance, or lingo, by a small band of academics. The phenomenon has advanced to such an extent that words and phrases like ‘castration’, ‘flaccid-penis’, ‘sexual-fantasy’, ‘erect penis’ and such have become a sort of lingua-franca through which the intellectual intercourse of closely-related scholars achieves effect in their academic publications.Wendy Doniger, the doyenne of academic studies on Hinduism has summarized the weltanschauung of these scholars in the following words:

Aldous Huxley once said that an intellectual was someone who had found something more interesting than sex; in Indology, an intellectual need not make that choice at all.

Who wrote the Mahabharata?

The Foreword to Courtright’s book is written by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty who, in her typical colloquial and superlative style, praises his book without apparently adding anything substantial. Except she does reveal undisclosed lore about the writing of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, “ . . . in which Ganesa dictates the epic to Vyasa” (Courtright, viii.)! Hindu tradition, however, is unanimous in informing us that it was the Sage Vyasa who dictated the epic to Ganesha rather than the other way around as Doniger states. No, this is not a slip of the tongue on Doniger’s part, unless it is some kind of a Freudian slip, because she actually constructs a pseudo-psychology out of her erroneous version of the tradition:

In Courtright’s defense, we must point out that he himself has correctly referred to the tradition about the authorship of the Mahabharata in his book (Courtright, pp.151–53). Doniger herself perhaps did not read the book thoroughly even though she wrote the ecstatic Foreword to it.

Lord Ganesha does not get to bask in the glory of his surprise, albeit ephemeral, promotion from a scribe to the narrator of the epic. Courtright brings Ganesha down from the heavenly realms to the earth and transforms him into something of a eunuch, an incestuous son, and a homosexual. Had Ganesha indulged in the ephemeral glory bestowed on him by Doniger then one must indeed pity his naivety, because Doniger had earlier forewarned:

Ganesa has everything that is fascinating to anyone who is interested in religion or India or both: charm, mystery, popularity, sexual problems, moral ambivalence, political importance, the works. [added emphasis]. (For more on this, please read page 197, chapter 17)

Misuse of Textual Sources

Courtright attempts to base his study on the contents of Hindu texts and then interprets them to derive a particular thesis. The two major classes of texts he deals with are the Vedas and the Puranas. The Tantras and the Upanishads are largely left out, except for a stand-alone translation of the Ganapati Atharvasirsa Upanishad in the appendix. In this section, we examine the validity of Courtright’s use of Hindu texts in his study.

Dubious Vedic Textual References

In Chapter I, titled ‘The Making of a Deity,’ he explores the evolution of Ganesha as a deity in the Hindu pantheon from a historical perspective. He begins with the antecedents of the deity in Vedic literature and proceeds to make dubious statements. For instance, while dismissing all Vedic references as evidence that the worship of Ganesha was known when the Vedic texts were the primary source of Hindu practice, he says:

A similar invocation in another Brahmanic text addresses ‘the one with the twisted trunk [vakratunda]’ (Tà 10.1.5), also leaving it uncertain whether it is Ganesa or Siva who is being addressed.

This is puzzling, because vakratunda is distinctly another name for Ganesha. Moreover, the last portion of the mantra (called the Vighneshvaragayatri in the Hindu tradition) reads—tanno dantih pracodayaat (Taittiriya Aranyaka 10.1.5), which is clearly a reference to the tusk of Ganesha. Courtright also mistakenly classifies the text as ‘Brahmanic’ or from the Brahmanas, whereas in reality it is a mantra. Another obvious reason why this mantra containing the word vakratunda refers to Ganesha and not to his father Shiva is that the preceding mantra is in fact addressed to Mahadeva and Rudra (other names of Shiva), and the mantra after the Vighneshvaragayatri is addressed to Nandin, the mount or vehicle of Shiva. Thus from the words of the mantra and its context as well, we should infer that this mantra is clearly addressed to the deity Ganesha and not to Lord Shiva. (For more on this, please read page 198 and 199, chapter 17)     

Finally, Courtright claims that ‘TB [Taittiriya Brahmana]10.15’ contains the word dantin. This reference by Courtright is problematic because Taittiriya Brahmana is divided into 3 books that are further divided into smaller sections. Therefore, the citation of TB 10.15 does not make much sense. The Vedic Word Concordance of Vishvabandhu also does not indicate any occurrence of the word dantin in the entire Taittiriya Brahmana. Courtright attributes the textual reference to a publication of Louis Renou. After referencing Renou’s article, however, we did not find any mention at all of the Taittiriya Brahmana in it. The reference in Renou’s article is in fact to
Maitrayani Samhita 2.9.1. The presence of so many erroneous and apparently invented textual citations in just one page of the book is simply unacceptable from an academic perspective.

Errors of Vedic citations are seen in other parts of the book as well. For instance in Chapter II of his book, Courtright claims: “The association of the thigh with the phallus in the Indian tradition dates from the Rig Veda (RV 8.4.1).” The mantra in question reads:

yadindra praagapaagudam nyag vaa uuyase nrbhih
simaa puruu nrshuuto asyaanave.asi prashardha turvashe

Ralph Griffith’s translation reads—

Though Indra, thou are called by men
eastward and westward, north and south,
Thou chiefly art with Anava and Turvasa,
brave Champion! urged by Men to come.

There is no reference to the penis or thighs here. We therefore question what Courtright was thinking. A majority of references to Vedic texts by Courtright in Chapter I of his book and others in subsequent chapters are either interpreted incorrectly, or they are non traceable. Thus we question if Courtright even had a first hand, or even a reasonable second hand, knowledge of Vedic texts when he wrote his book.

Mythology of Ganesa and Abuse of Puranic Texts

Chapter II of the book, titled ‘Mythology of Ganesa,’ deals with the different ways in which academics studying religion can approach the mythology of the deity. Courtright lists five such levels, of which Wendy Doniger is credited for explicating the first four while the fifth is Courtright’s own contribution. This particular chapter seems to focus on the first or ‘narrative’ level, in which the story of the deity is stated in all its versions. Varying divergent and convergent versions of the story of Ganesha are scattered throughout a diverse set of Hindu texts belonging to different centuries. Courtright treats these texts in a combined, holistic manner to explore the thematic, structural, and interpretative dimensions of these myths. Courtright says that he has treated all Puranic accounts as belonging to a single ongoing tradition in order to paint his picture of Ganesha. We believe that this is not a sound approach, because each of the Puranas catered to the needs of a particular Hindu sect and some of them are known to display sectarian rhetoric against other sects and their deities.

Winternitz presents a very relevant example to demonstrate this sectarian bias, bordering on the absurd, as reflected in the Puranas regarding the deities of a rival sect. (For more on this, please read page 201, chapter 17)

Read chapter 17 part 1 from page 190 to 201

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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