Hindu Fundamentalism and Scholarship

This article at the New York Times talks about the work of Wendy Doniger, a scholar at the University of Chicago who has irked Hindu fundamentalists by looking closely at issues of sexual identity and imagery in Hindu mythology. It seems that the West has a schizoid relationship with sexuality in Eastern religion; on the one hand, it’s clearly one of the aspects of South Asian religiosity that Westerners are most uncomfortable with. The Bible’s own peculiar sexuality has been carefully realigned and interpreted in the service of traditional, conservative Western ideals of sexuality, whereas the sexuality of the Indian religious context can be seen by Western observers as dangerously ‘unregulated’. Meanwhile, some Westerners have proved just as likely to err to the other side, pushing sexual imagery to a undeserved prominence and injecting modern Freudian sexuality into a context where it may not belong. Seeking an ancient antecedents for modern sexual liberality, they project a vision of sexual equality and free love into a past where it may have little or no historical foundation. Capturing this balance is a difficult task, and one that has often been botched by Westerners in the past. Hindus (and Buddhists, and Muslims, and most other religious peoples) have every right to object to ham-handed Western efforts that have depicted their religion only in relation to Western interests.

Still, if Hindu nationalists want to have a say in the presentation and public face of their religion, they could hardly do worse than their current tack. Threats and intimidation will unite even sympathetic scholars against them. Poorly supported scholarship created to further sectarian aims has already diminished their credibility. If the fundamentalists are serious about taking their place in academic discussions of their religion, they should set their sights on beating their opponents at their own game with serious, well supported scholarship. That will mean abandoning many of their preconceived notions of an idealized past that likely never was. That’s a feat of faith that too many fundamentalists seem unable to perform.

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