When a ‘scholar’ interprets Indian culture

When two people play chess, they follow certain common rules. A chess-piece may only move a certain way. If both the players do not agree upon the established way of playing chess, then even though the game may continue, it would cease to be chess.

I could pick up a pawn and use it to plug my nose. I may even make it a habit that would last for decades. When people point to the pawn in my nose and ask me what it is, I can tell them it is a nose-plug. But then, the pawn doesn’t stop being a chess-piece simply because I chose to disregard its original context (the game of chess).

Something very similar has been happening in the context of western academic interpretation of Hindu cultural heritage. Writers like Wendy Doniger and Paul Courtright bring Freudian psychoanalysis to bear upon Hindu mythology and come to ridiculous (some say offensive) conclusions. Reading through their esteemed writings, one can’t help but conclude that they come to the table with preconceived notions and then bend the data to suit their agenda.

The following is an excerpt from Vishal Agarwal’s review of Paul Courtright’s Ganesa, Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings.

In Asvaghosha’s Buddhacarita, there occurs a story in which Devadatta sends a mad elephant to kill Bhagavan Buddha. However, when the elephant approached the Buddha, the latter’s spiritual power tamed the creature. The Buddha then stroked the head of the elephant, according to the text as quoted by Courtright.

One would normally interpret the Buddha’s ‘stroking the head’ of the tamed mad elephant as an act of blessing, or benevolence, of compassion and love. However, Courtright suggests, “…his hand strokes the head in what may be a faint echo of a gesture of decapitation.”

Coupled with the fact that the words ‘decapitation’, ‘beheading’, ‘castration’ are used interchangeably by Courtright and given a sexual connotation in his book, one wonders if the phrase ‘strokes the head’, even though taken from a secondary source/translation, is itself not a double-entendre.

Many readers would perhaps recall a televised scene in which an elephant raises his trunk to salute the Kanchi Acharya Jayendra Sarasvati. The Acharya in turn approaches the elephant after it lowers its trunk and then pats the trunk of the elephant. Since Courtright sees a flaccid penis in non-raised trunk of Ganesa, he would perhaps interpret the raised trunk as an ‘erect’ penis, and the patting of the creature’s head as castration. He could see the lowering of the trunk by the elephant before the Acharya pats it as the triumph of asceticism over eroticism!

The point we are making here is that such Freudian interpretations are quite bunkum, and their juiciness depends merely on how fertile the imagination of the Freudian interpreter is.

The practice is very reminiscent of the first European explorers coming to their conclusions about India based on their own sensibilities, biases, and political agendas. It is sad to see the same being perpetrated even today. And this is not a fringe school of lunatics. These writers are widely read and their shoddy work often prescribed as studyworthy in universities. This makes sure that for thousands of genuinely curious young people who want to understand the ways of India, porn-peddlers like Doniger and Courtright form the first impression.

Not only are these “academics” picking the pawn up and plugging their butts with it, they are also declaring to the world that chess is nothing more than butt-plugging.

#academics, #freudian-interpretation, #ganesha, #hinduism, #paul-courtright, #vishal-agarwal, #wendy-doniger