“The cure for pride is knowledge. Who can cure
A man who’s proud of knowledge?
If the patient should be allergic to amrita,
Those who have read this website since its inception know that it forwards a heterodox perspective on Hinduism. I empathize with Duryodhana and Karna in the Mahabharata, and find Arjuna’s despondency to be justified. I’m deeply interested in naastik sects, and I’m critical of the conception of female morality, which has been derived from characters like Sita or Draupadi. This is the critique of a highly skeptical student of the Hindu philosophical tradition, not the kneejerk response of a blindly reverent follower.
Furthermore, I don’t wholly dismiss the work of the scholars I’m about to criticize. I’ve enjoyed her books immensely, and strongly respect the her work, including her work on eroticism, gender, and sexuality. I’ve cited some of their work in the past, and will continue to do so. Western scholars viewing Hinduism from the outside provide a useful perspective. To quote Wendy Doniger’s introduction to her and Brian Smith’s translation of The Laws of Manu:
“Of course, both native commentators and Orientalists have axes to grind, but they are different sorts of axes. The axe of the native commentator is honed on a more intense and immediate personal involvement in the text, which may give him good reasons to want to misread the text, to fudge or misinterpret the verse in order to make it mean what he thinks it ought to mean. The axe of the Orientalist, on the other hand is sharpened by cultural ignorance and lack of empathy, or a distancing from the culture, which may lead to misinterpretations of a very different sort.”
Doniger isn’t a fool. She understands that she and her colleagues are coming from outside the tradition they study, and that this will necessarily introduce certain biases into their scholarship.
Knowing that she acknowledges her bias, at least in theory, lets proceed to the criticism:
The Short Version:
The main problem, which many Hindus have with her work, and the work of her students, lies in their Freudian approach. Critics from within and outside of Hinduism posit that this methodology is not intellectually rigorous, and often is used to formulate bizarre and (to a believer) denigrating portrayals of the religion based on untested psychological speculation. Defenders of the Freudian approach are quick to point out that though Freudian theories have gone out of style in clinical and research psychology, it is still very much in vogue in philosophy, literary criticism, and religious studies. This is a fair point, but simply being widespread doesn’t make the Freudian lens more tenable in this author’s opinion.
More damningly, the scholars under critique have committed a number of factual inaccuracies and translation errors throughout their work. Worst of all, since these scholars predominate in the field (critics sometimes use the word “cartel”) the peer review process is relatively ineffective in ensuring that their errors don’t make it into journals and published books. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the scholars in question, but is a natural product of in-group bias. As a result, such works are praised, awarded, and often become bestsellers. These portrayals, which are of a decidedly outsider’s perspective form the basis of Hinduism as portrayed in encyclopedias, textbooks, and museums.
However, the response of Doniger and her Freudian colleagues to their critics is what truly raises the moralistic ire of the diasporic Hindu community. When critics such as Rajiv Malhotra (who normally poses unnecessarily aggressive critiques, but in this particular instance his polemic pointed to specific arguments and facts), Swami Tyagananda, S.N. Balagangadhara, or those at the Hindu American Foundation or the number of other Hindu groups point out their denigrating portrayals and inaccuracies, these critics are not treated as “insiders” giving a critique which might be biased in the opposite direction, but which nevertheless deserves consideration and response. They are instead accused of religious radicalism, bigotry, and a proclivity towards violence. It is true that there are Hindu groups and individuals which are guilty of these things, and much of the loudest and most rhetorically effective criticism of Doniger and the Freudians have been from this camp (The funny thing is that while Doniger is normally the centerpiece of this controversy, her writing is mild compared to that of her colleagues.) It is a disaster for free speech that her recent book was pulled from the Indian market at their behest, and their participation in the 2009 California textbook case pushed moderate Hindu voices into the background. But this does not justify conflating criticisms of erroneous content, with criticisms of a more emotional character, nor does it justify tarring their opponents as quasi-terroristic or Hindutva radicals. By this conflation, substantive Hindu critiques aren’t even recognized as legitimate much less addressed.
Let me substantiate this narrative:
The Long Version: Here are some passages from Paul Courtwright’s book, Gan̤̊eśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings:
“But, from a psychoanalytical perspective, there is meaning in the selection of an 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 phallus– ascetic and benign– where Siva’s is ‘hard’ [urdhvalinga], erotic, and destructive.”
“Finally, his insatiable appetite for sweetmeats [modaka]– a source of many amusing tales– raises the question (from a psychoanalytical perspective) of whether this tendency towards oral erotic gratification may not serve as compensation for his arrested development at not reaching the phallic stage as well as the severing of the maternal bond he underwent at the beheading hand of his father. Gaanath Obeyesekere interprets Ganesa’s celibacy, like his broken tusk, as the punishment he receives for incestuous fixation on his mother.”
Courtwright goes on to claim that Ganesha represents: “a primal Indian male longing: to remain close to the mother and to do so in a way what will protect her and yet remain acceptable to the father. This means that the son must retain access to mother but not attempt to possess her sexually.” This is interesting speculation, but does this kind of speculation pass for religious scholarship? Of course this begs the question of where “religious scholarship” should fall on the spectrum from physics to literary criticism, but it is worth addressing.
Here are some more passages, this time from Sarah Caldwell’s research paper The Bloodthirsty Tongue and the Self-Feeing Breast: Homosexual Fellatio Fantasy in a South Indian Ritual Tradition:
“This essay demonstrates that in Kerala, symbolism of the fierce goddess [Kali] does not represent abreactions of the primal scene fantasies of a Kleinian ‘phallic mother’ or the introjection of the father’s penis; rather, we will show that themes of eroticism and aggression in the mythology are male transsexual fantasies reflecting intense preoedipal fixation on the mother’s body and expressing conflicts over primary feminine identity.
The essential rituals of the Bhagvati cult all point to the aggressive and fatal erotic drinking of the male by the female, the infamous orgy of blood sacrifice of male ‘cocks’ at the Kodungallur Bhagavati temple; the male veliccappatu’s cutting of his head in a symbolic act of self castration…[Kali] is herself, first of all, a phallic being, the mother with a penis…she is the bloodied image of the castrating and menstruating (thus castrating) female… In this time of analysis the phallic abilities of the goddess disguise castration anxieties ultimately directed toward the father as well as homosexual desire for the father’s penis. Following Freud, such analyses stress the father-son polarity of the oedipal conflict as the central trauma seeking expression. As Alter and O’Flaherty amply demonstrate, milk and breastfeeding are also symbolically transformed in the male imagination into semen and phallus…The ascetic male who retains the semen becomes like a pregnant female with breasts and swollen belly; the semen rises like cream to his head and produces extraordinary psychic powers…Not only are the fluids of milk and semen, symbolic equivalents, but the act of ‘milking’ or breastfeeding becomes a symbolic equivalent to the draining of semen from the phallus in intercourse.”
If you’ve ever read the psychoanalytical literature on Hinduism produced in the British colonial era, this will all seem strikingly familiar. Caldwell is in basic agreement with C.D. Daly, who wrote in his 1927 article “Hindu Mythology and Castration Complex” (Originally in German.) His article claimed that Kali worship was evidence to the fact that:
“The Hindu race succumbed to a regression on the basis of their abnormal reaction to the castration complex, which appears later than the menstruation complex. This made it a race that is dominated by possessions and compulsive ideas similar in nature to those found in neurotics.”
British scholars reporting on Tantra, the Shakti sects, Krishna and the Gopis, it is all filled with a sort of Victorian awed fascination with the deluded, lascivious natives.
All these psychoanalytic interpretations follow this general formula:
1) Examine Hindu belief or sacred symbol.
2) Use free association, (or some method of psychoanalytic reasoning which doesn’t diverge too strongly therefrom) to expose the “deeper,” sexual, violent, and/or scatological, significance underlying the cultural, intellectual, or philosophical significance accorded to it by the believers.
3) Strongly imply, as per the Freudian paradigm, that the belief or symbol illustrates that Hindu believers have this particular sexual neurosis.
The only real difference is that Colonial era psychoanalytic scholars were a bit heavier handed in step 3. Take these excerpts from Owen Berkeley-Hill’s “The Anal-Erotic Factor in Hindu Religion,” published in 1921 as another example.
“Here we once more find the flatus-complex masquerading as a metaphysical Spirit (Atman)— ‘a divine afflatus’ which permeated and breathed through all material things.” 
“These three gods, [the Trimurti] concerned in the threefold operation of integration (evolution), maintenance and disintegration, are typified by the three letters composing the mystic syllable OM (AUM) – yet another manifestation of the flatus-complex. Another interesting point is the idea that at the end of vast periods of time, called, ‘days of Brahma’, each lasting 4,320,000,000 human years, the whole universe is re-absorbed, and after remaining dormant for equally long periods, is again evolved. A ‘day’ of Brahma is said to be divided thus:
Jones maintains that ‘time’ in its ordinary and personal application can be an unconscious equivalent of excretory product because of the sense of value attaching to it. Are we not at liberty to suppose that the explanation of the origin of these almost incredible figures has its root in somewhat similar notions? There exist throughout the literature that pertains to Hindu religion and philosophy almost endless examples of that particular type of thinking which is concerned so deeply with figures. It appears to me as not unlikely that playing and juggling with figures is an intellectual form of the manipulation of external objects. In other words, it is the purely mental equivalent of moulding, sculpture, and the manipulation of plastic material.”
Berkley-Hill uses the anal-nature of Hinduism to explain why Hindus are “niggardly and avaricious,” and why they care so much for their children. After all, “Children, like money, are faecal symbols.” He also scribes the precision of Hindu rituals, and the specificity of definitions within Hindu philosophy to their anal eroticism.
Berkeley-Hill’s piece also employs numerous inaccuracies about Hindu mythology to further his point. For example he claims that Ganesha was created out of Parvati’s excrement. The employment of falsehoods to buttress a Freudian thesis is a phenomenon, which we will see, recur in the next section.
The psychological arguments in Berkeley Hill’s piece are used to justify virulent bigotry towards Hindus, and the missionary activities, educational efforts, and general “civilizing mission” of the British Raj. While his modern descendants don’t do this quite as explicitly, an attitude of superiority and disdain for the Hindu “other” frequently permeates both of their bodies of work.
Another ironic twist: Doniger and others in her tradition usually consider themselves to be defenders of a form of Hinduism which was denigrated and marginalized by colonial scholarship, and also by neo-Vedanta and diasporic Hinduism. In most respects, I would actually agree with this characterization. The sexual, the “gross,” and the violent in Hinduism have long been denied, disparaged, or obfuscated and the Freudians have done great work in elevating the more extreme and “exotic” in the tradition, without conscious and intentional disparagement. For this Doniger and her colleagues deserve praise. But that praise cannot obfuscate the troubling similarities between the two distinctly outsider perspectives.
Now, if this was simply a matter of academics saying archaic and insulting things in dusty journals, there would really be no reason for alarm. The fact is that since Hinduism studies (like almost all humanities disciplines) is so homogeneous in its acceptance of such approaches, this scholarship is understandably seen by certain knowledge gatekeepers (such as publishers and journalists) as a mainstream, noncontroversial interpretation of Hinduism. This particular outsider (Freudian) view thus has become dominant within the discourse, to the point where Hindus feel as though their insider views are either unwelcome, or are tacitly marginalized. As a result, the outsider interpretation makes it into encyclopedias, textbooks, and museums where they serve to mold the general American public’s perception of Hinduism and Hindu culture, and the insiders feel as though their voice has been stolen.
Factual errors: The book “Invading the Sacred” highlights a number of factual errors made by these scholars. Here is a small selection:
First Jeffrey Kripal’s erroneous Bengali translations:
“kol” (lap) becomes “genitals” or “defiled sexual space.”
“aste aste aparsha korchhen” (touching softly) becomes “sodomy.”
“vyakulata” (longing) becomes “erotic torment”
“aanchal” (end part of a sari which covers the upper trunk and hangs off the shoulder) becomes “skirt” so that the phrase reads “hide be under your skirt” rather than “cover me with the aanchal of your love.” 
(It should be noted that Kripal did correct some of these errors in his second edition of Kali’s Child. No doubt Kripal would think that the text is improved as a result of these errors being brought to light. This is a rare gem of positivity in this sea of gloom.)
Now David White:
Mistranslates “Dravya (substance, or element) as “fluid” with a sexual connotation.
He also claims that the bindi is a symbol of menstrual blood, which I can find no outside corroboration or historical evidence of. (Of course, if anyone can substantiate this or any other alleged mistake on this page, I’ll correct it.)
Now Wendy Doniger:
In her translation of a, 18 stanza long Rigvedic hymn, Michael Witzel found 43 instances of shaky or erroneous translations. In her translation of the Jaiminiya Brahmana he find many instances of omitted sentences, insertion of sexual or scatological phrases which don’t occur in the Vedic text, and a proliferation of grammatical errors. He concludes that “In sum: The ‘translation’ simply is UNRELIABLE.” To compound the sloppiness, many of these errors could have been corrected if she had only referenced prior translations, and the work of her contemporaries. (It should also be noted that diasporic Hindus, Doniger’s most virulent critics, have also heavily criticized Witzel himself for his scholarship relating to the origins of the Indo-Aryans, so he is by no means a “friendly witness.”) Unfortunately though, Witzel doesn’t give examples of specific errors, so I cannot report them to you.
In the forward to Courtright’s book on Ganesha, she claims that Ganesha dictates the Mahabharata to Vyasa, when really the mythology asserts that Vyasa dictated the story and Ganesha was the scribe.
His PHD thesis contains numerous transliteration errors. He doesn’t seem to know where the long vowels go in devanagari text, so he places the diacritical marks seemingly at random. For example, he writes Athārva Veda” instead of “Arthava Veda” or “Māhabhārata” instead of “Mahābhārata.” 
He also makes some factual errors in his PHD thesis. He claims that Ganesha does not feature prominently in any of the Mahapuranas, and is completely absent from Matsya purana, both of which are false. Ganesha is mentioned in Matsya purana, and has an entire khanda dedicated to him in Brahmavaivarta Purana.
The question remains: If these factual inaccuracies were addressed, would the critics still have a problem with the material? Obviously, since their rage is inspired by sexualized interpretations, which don’t normally rely on mistranslation. The translations only serve as a possible indicator that these works were not scrutinized closely before publication, and the flippancy with which Hindus are treated when they bring up these problems indicates that the academy may be relatively unwelcome to criticism.
Peer Review: It is almost a trope to say “peer review is broken,” but I sometimes question if it ever functioned properly. The idea of peer review seems untenable given the homogenizing process which occurs in every academic discipline (besides perhaps the hard sciences). Many of the aforementioned pieces were lauded even after getting published. Kripal’s book on Ramakrishan was granted the First Book award by the American Academy of Religion, despite the fact that no fluent Bengali speakers were on the AAR panel nor on his thesis committee. This lack of effective peer review allows incomplete research and misinformation to spill into the general public’s perception of Hinduism. Kripal’s book was recommended by encyclopedia Britannica. Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia cites Doniger as the author of its article on Hinduism. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore also made use of Kripal’s writings in describing one of it’s Ganesha sculptures to museum goers. (Both the Encarta article and the Walters Art Museum comment placard have been revised under pressure from Hindu groups. Perhaps they’ve found their voice after all.)
The Scholarly Response: The icing on top is that when Hindus criticize these scholars on this basis, they typically don’t receive anything close to a serious response. Lets return to Doniger’s introduction to The Laws of Manu to get her perspective on insider-outsider dialogue. “Commentators” here is referring to ancient textual commentators, but the logic carries forward into the present day:
“We are caught, as usual in cross-cultural studies, on the horns of a dilemma. The anti-Orientalist agenda argues that we do not have the right to interfere, to tell those for whose tradition Manu still speaks that we know better than they do. But the agenda of humanistic scholarship argues that we do have the right to challenge their arguments, as we would challenge anyone’s arguments, that we cannot simply endorse their faith statements. The solution is a compromise: we must try to state fairly what they [i.e. the native commentators] are saying, and to understand why they think that they are right, but we must also say what we think, and we must be honest in stating why we think we are right. We can see the commentator’s reasons for interpreting a verse as they do, but we have the right to assert that we do not share that reason and that we therefore interpret the verse differently.”
Sounds reasonable. When the insiders have a different interpretation from the outsider scholars, the outsiders can still disagree, but should supply reasons for that disagreement. I’m with Doniger so far. Lets see how she responded to one of her prime critics, Rajiv Malhotra when he authored a piece called “Wendy’s Child Syndrome” pointing out a wide array of alleged factual or translation errors:
“In the world of scholarship, you are what my sainted mother, who was Viennese, would have called an ‘aufgestellte mausdrek’, a mouse-turd standing up on end. You do not even know enough to know how much you do not know; you have no training, nor even the rudiments of a self-education in the most basic principles of academic discourse. I would no sooner take your advice on how I should write about Hinduism (let alone how Jeff Kripal should write on Hinduism) than I would expect you to take my advice on how to run your business, whatever it is. I’m sorry I wasted all this time even drafting this reply to you, but I confess I finally lost my temper. Please don’t bother me any more.”
And later on:
“I refuse to have a conversation with YOU, RAJIV MALHOTRA, [original emphasis] because of the ill-informed, inaccurate, and malicious things you have written about me about about Jeffrey Kripal, statements that disqualify you as a valid spokesperson for anything at all, let alone the Hindu community as a whole.”
Again, feel free to read Malhotra’s original piece and decide for yourself if he was so vicious in it as to negate Doniger’s self declared academic responsibility to answering critics from within the Hindu tradition. Speaking frankly, Malhotra makes it very very difficult to be gentle or respectful. He is an internet polemicist. But does Doniger help herself by this kind of response? What if she had instead elevated herself above polemics and insults and responded with a dry, academic bullet list addressing Malhotra’s substantive claims? Malhotra sparks a fire, and Doniger feeds it. At the end of the day, the Hindu community lacks answers, and academia appears intransigent.
Ok, now lets see how Sarah Caldwell reacts to the criticsm of Jeffrey Kripal’s scholarship:
“The hostility with which Jeff’s book has been attacked in India is due, I believe, not to what Jeff has to say about the real, historical Ramakrishna, but what his theiss implies about Vivekananda, and by extension, contemporary Hindu nationalism. Anyone who has seen Anand Patwardhan’s Father, Son and Holy War film series (particularly part 2, ‘hero pharmacy’) understands the deep connections between male sexual prowess, virility, and Hindu nationalist violence that are so explicitly presented therein… With the current election of a BJP-led government, such careful analysis is timely and essential “
First, by associating her critics with nationalist politics and religious violence it seems.
“(And Ramakrishna’s open and active rejection of heterosexuality, even more than his homosexuality, was a deeply antisocial act in Ramakrishna’s social world)…Implications that Vivekananda […] was the passive homosexual object of his guru’s lust is deeply threatening. Such an image raises specters of the ‘feminine’ male of India that was so much a part of colonial discourse, and that pervades contemporary Hindu nationalism.”
Then by positioning the critics as homophobic, while begging the question of Ramakrishna’s sexual orientation.
Courtright speaking in defense of his decision to not engage his critics said, “When the Other is threatening your life, I am a scholar, not a saint.” This is important to address. Of course, as this trend of scholarship has attracted attention, (particularly in internet forums, petitions, and one particular internet petition against Courtright specifically) some people have made violent or threatening comments towards these scholars. While that is terrible, and I empathize with Courtright’s distress over it, I don’t see why it justifies his refusal to answer his critics.
Ravij Malhotra (with much less decorum than the following), the Hindu Students Council, and especially Swami Tyagananda, and S.N. Balagangadhara posed polite targeted, critiques regarding matters of fact. Why do the threats of fanatics invalidate the responsibility to answer the criticism of moderates? Why is Doniger unwilling to display the same fair mindedness to her living opponents, which she advocates displaying towards the deceased Hindu commentators? Wouldn’t their scholarship be strengthened if they decisively refuted all these false accusations?
This article started out as a book review of “Invading the Sacred” which explains its disproportionate presence in the citations. Initially, I had also planned on including a section critiquing the Hindu side of this debate. I think their criticism is overreaching at some points, and not strong enough in others where they too have been overtaken by the thought-memes of Enlightenment thought. However, that section is quickly ballooning into its own post, so stay tuned for that. Until then, I’ll leave you with this verse by Varahamihira:
“The fire of envious critic’s tongues
Refines the true poetic gold.
Should we not celebrate in cheerful songs
Poor fools who give us benefits untold?”
 Brough, John. “Poems from the Sanskrit (Penguin Classics) [Paperback].” Page 74 [I should note that in Brough’s translation he writes “ambrosia” instead of “amrita.” I can’t access the original Sanskrit to check his translation, but I’m guessing he chose “ambrosia” so that westerners would get it better. This is speculative though.]
 Manu, and Brian Smith. The Laws of Manu. Trans. Wendy Doniger. London, England: Penguin, 1991. Print. Page lxvii-lxviii
 Ramaswamy, Krishnan, Antonio D. Nicolas, and Aditi Banerjee. Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America. New Delhi: Rupa &, 2007. Print. Page, 228
 Ibid 3, Page 231
 Ibid 3, Page 234
 Ibid 3, Page 42-43
 Misra, Girishwar. “Psychology in India Volume IV: Theoretical and Methodological Developments (ICSSR Survey of Advances in Research), 1/e Girishwar Misra – Pearson Education, India.” Psychology in India Volume IV: Theoretical and Methodological Developments (ICSSR Survey of Advances in Research), 1/e Girishwar Misra – Pearson Education, India. Dorling Kindersley, n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2013. Page 50
 Berkely-Hill, Owen. “The Anal-Erotic Factor in the Religion, Philosophy and Character of the Hindus.” The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 2 (1921): 306-38. Print. Page 311-312
 Ibid 8, Page 314-315
 Ibid 8, Page 329
 Ibid 8, Page 331
 Ibid 8, Page 330
 Ibid8, Page 333-338
 Ibid 3, Page 30-35
 Ibid 3, Page 153
 Ibid 3, Page 90
 Ibid 3, Page 81
 Ibid 3, Page 67-68
 Ibid 3, Page 196
 Ibid 3, Page 245
 Ibid 3, Page 28
 Ibid 3, Page 186
 Ibid 3, Page 400
 Ibid 2, Page lxviii
 Ibid 3, Page 305-306
 Ibid 3, Page 307
 Ibid 3, Page 46-47
 Ibid 3, Page 47
 Ibid 1, Page 76