An Independent Review of Paul Courtright's book on Ganesa - Chapter 17 part 5

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Ganesha as a Trickster

Courtright cites the British anthropologist Edmund Leach approvingly: Leach sees this characteristic as Ganesa’s closes link to the trickster: Ganesa’s broken tusk and severed head with the long flaccid trunk are the clearest signals of his sexual ambiguity.

Concluding his own estimation of Ganesha as a ‘trickster’, Courtright then likens the deity to a eunuch:

His sexuality remains ambiguous, as his relationship with his mother and father, his detachable tusk/phallus and his similarities to eunuchs all suggest.

All the above passages of Courtright are not only dubious from an academic perspective, they are also plainly offensive, and perverse. Perhaps, Courtright et al always see life through a different aperture than most of us. Perhaps, they always see everything as a cigar, and
the cigar as only a Lingam.

The Worship of Ganesha

Chapter IV deals with the worship of Ganesha in homes, in temples, and during public festivals in Maharashtra. Overall, the description is balanced, readable and nothing out of the ordinary. It is clearly written from the perspective of an observant outsider. A few references to Indian literature on the subject are thrown in, besides some from the works of the Indologists as well, perhaps to give the entire narrative a quasi-academic flavor. For the Hindus, the chapter perhaps does not offer much that is not already known to them in general terms. For the Westerners or even Westernized Indians, the narrative could serve as a useful and informative background on how the tradition of worship of Ganesha is actually practised in our times.

Chapter V titled, ‘Ganesa in a Regional Setting: Maharashtra’ deals with the well-known fact of deep devotion of Maharashtrians to Ganapati. It opens with a strange comment, based on an old work, that in South East and in East Asia he is more often portrayed as demon. Perhaps this has changed in the last six decades since the book referenced by Courtright was written. One of us, who has worked in and has traveled to that part of the world (Thailand, Bali and Java, Singapore)
would clearly question this characterization today. At least in our own times, he is a beloved deity for the Hindus of Bali (and even more so in eastern Java), as well as for the Buddhists in urban Thailand. (For more on the rest of the chapter please read page 242, 243 and 244, chapter 17)

Taking Liberties with Liberal Arts (Courtright’s Ph.D. Thesis)

We had an opportunity to obtain a copy of Courtright’s Ph.D. thesis300 of which the book under review is an expansion. Interestingly, in the Preface of his thesis, the author states:

Nearly ten years ago, while I was teaching conversational English at Ahmadnagar College in central Maharasthra, several of my students invited me to join them and their families for the annual celebrations to the Hindu god Ganesa. At that time all I knew about Ganesa was that he was the elephant-faced deity who Hindus regarded as the god of good fortune. I had seen his picture in numerous shops in the city and had gathered the impression that the good fortune he was believed to bring had largely to do with the financial success and material well-being. Hindus seemed to view him with a compelling light-heartedness which I found quite different from the more somber attitudes my Protestant upbringing had taught me were appropriately religious.

He states that during the Ganesha Festival at Ahmadnagar, the Maharashtrian dancers made him dance with them and as a result, “I had become united with them. It seemed that I had finally experienced India ‘from the inside’.” He expresses his acknowledgements to his informants in the following words:

Although the title page lists me as the author of this dissertation, many others have been involved in its completion. The people of Maharashtra, displaying attitudes of hospitality for which India is famous, welcomed my frequent inquiries about their festival and its traditions, patiently submitted to my interviews, and made my research pleasurable. No scholar could hope to have greater cooperation than I received from them.

Through our analysis of the resulting book, we have seen the manner in which Courtright  expressed his gratitude for the cooperation offered by Maharashtrian Hindus: calling the cherished deity of his ‘native informants’ as something of a eunuch, something like a homosexual, and a pervert harboring sexual fantasies for his mother! Perhaps, it is not out of place to mention that even Courtright’s PhD thesis is so full of errors, that it does not even spell the names of Hindu texts and common Hindu terms correctly. (For more on this please read page 245 and 246, chapter 17)

Conclusion: Academic Scholarship, or ‘Peer-Reviewed Pornography’?

The above examples are but a small specimen of erroneous translations, selective use of Hindu textual evidence, insufficient knowledge of Tantric and Yogic traditions, and the over-sexualization of passages in Hindu texts that characterize Courtright’s book, page after page, and chapter after chapter. It is fair to say that being based on incorrect data, his interpretations and his reconstruction of the Hindu deity Ganesha are by and large invalid.

To conclude then, Courtright’s book may be considered as an example of excellent pornographic fiction, and also as an example of careless academic scholarship. It is therefore surprising that scholars in South Asian and Indology programs in the United States have praised the book and awarded it prizes. It makes one wonder if this is due to the fact that the level of scholarship in Indian and Hinduism studies is really substandard in American Universities.

In an apparent effort to defuse the crisis, Courtright wrote an email to an internet list of scholars in South Asian Studies:

I wrote it over twenty years ago, in a different discursive environment than we have now . . . were I writing that book today I would, hopefully, be more aware of how it might be read by some Hindu readers in both India and its diasporas.

This confession must be quite puzzling to any honest academic. This approach raises questions regarding ethics and honesty in scholarship. Is an academic expected to play to the gallery, as Courtright has confessed he did and perhaps intends to do in the future as well? If so, is it not a violation of objectivity, ethics and honesty? One may understand that interpretations of literature, history, or any other observable phenomenon changes as new proven theories and data
emerge. But why should the interpretation change according to the readers? What kind of academic objectivity is that? Is it not a corroboration of the accusation that there is a deeply entrenched anti-Hindu bias among Wendy’s Children?

Courtright apparently felt that so long as his audience was not Hindu and annoyingly knowledgeable, he could depict Hinduism in an obscene manner—perhaps as an ‘inside’ ethnic joke shared with his white colleagues. One cannot help but recall Doniger’s thigh-slapping, triumphant amusement upon ‘learning’ from Kripal that the Sri Ramakrishna that many ‘moronic’ Hindus worship as the epitome of their religion could be academically tried and convicted as a conflicted, maladjusted homosexual, and a pervert to boot. Those were cozy
times indeed to laugh about the heathen and his blindness, with one’s buddies. Today, with more Hindus constituting the audience, Courtright feels that he has to calibrate his interpretations differently. Strangely, the academic reaction to this bizarre phenomenon ranges from a
deafening silence to showering praises on him.

Books such as those of Courtright and Doniger merely conform to the latest fad in eroticizing ‘exotic’ cultures, just as a few decades earlier it was very fashionable for some Western anthropologists to go ‘bravely’ to some remote island in the Samoa archipelago to study the sexual practices of Samoans. Such studies not just demean the culture that forms their subject. They are like the gaze of a pervert that mentally disrobes a lady standing in front of him. Indeed, the book reviewed by us does not necessarily illuminate its purported subject matter. Rather, it allows us to act as voyeurs of the mind of the author. Hindus and Indians do not need such ‘dedicated’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘respectful’ and ‘loving’ scholars to promote an understanding of our heritage in the West, just as an abandoned orphan would do well without the love of a pedophile.

Read chapter 17 part 5 from page 241 to 247

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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