Freudian Psychoanalysis vs. Intellectual Rigor in Hinduism Studies.


Disagreement and debate have long been central to the Hindu tradition. Here is a mythological debate between Adi Shankara and Vyasa. Image source: Ramakrishna Mission

“The cure for pride is knowledge. Who can cure

A man who’s proud of knowledge?

If the patient should be allergic to amrita,

The prognosis

Is hopeless.”


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.”[2]

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.”[3]

“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.”[4]

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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.” [8]

“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.”[9]

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.”[10] He also scribes the precision of Hindu rituals, and the specificity of definitions within Hindu philosophy to their anal eroticism.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13] 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.


The Mughal king Akbar also held a series of debates in which Hindus and Muslims of various sorts participated, as well as Jesuit Christians and Atheists.

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”[14]

“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.” [15]

(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.[16]

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.)[17]

Now Wendy Doniger:

In her translation of a, 18 stanza long Rigvedic hymn, Michael Witzel found 43 instances of shaky or erroneous translations.[18] 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.[19]

Paul Courtright:

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.” [20]

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.[21] 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.[22] The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore also made use of Kripal’s writings in describing one of it’s Ganesha sculptures to museum goers.[23]  (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.”[24]

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.”[25]


Try your hand at free association Freudian interpretation while examining this image. Its a fun exercise. Image source: Exotic India

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.”[26]

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 “[27]

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.”[28]

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?”


[1] 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.]

[2] Manu, and Brian Smith. The Laws of Manu. Trans. Wendy Doniger. London, England: Penguin, 1991. Print. Page lxvii-lxviii

[3] 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

[4] Ibid 3, Page 231

[5] Ibid 3, Page 234

[6] Ibid 3, Page 42-43

[7] 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

[8] 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

[9] Ibid 8, Page 314-315

[10] Ibid 8, Page 329

[11] Ibid 8, Page 331

[12] Ibid 8, Page 330

[13] Ibid8, Page 333-338

[14] Ibid 3, Page 30-35

[15] Ibid 3, Page 153

[16] Ibid 3, Page 90

[17] Ibid 3, Page 81

[18] Ibid 3, Page 67-68

[19] Ibid 3, Page 196

[20] Ibid 3, Page 245

[21] Ibid 3, Page 28

[22] Ibid 3, Page 186

[23] Ibid 3, Page 400

[24] Ibid 2, Page lxviii

[25] Ibid 3, Page 305-306

[26] Ibid 3, Page 307

[27] Ibid 3, Page 46-47

[28] Ibid 3, Page 47

[29]  Ibid 1, Page 76

11 comments on “Freudian Psychoanalysis vs. Intellectual Rigor in Hinduism Studies.

  1. Anu says:

    What a brilliant post ! Thank you.

    It has often seemed to me that random interpretations of ‘western scholars’ are given credit just on the basis of some some assumed academic superiority. Look deep into many of these commentaries and they are often ridiculous.

    While the arguments of shall we say ‘native experts’ are dismissed as being emotional, biased, narrow-minded and blah blah blah.

    It would be great if we could just have intelligent debates regardless of where the opinions are coming from.

    But like you say the ‘academic scholars’ are least reluctant to engage.


    • Hello Anu,

      Glad that you got some enjoyment out of the post! It is truly unfortunate that one side has a disproportionate level of control over the academic discourse on Hinduism. Outsider and insider perspectives are both useful. In a proper context of free dialogue, they’d bea able to cover each other’s blind spots. I’d like to see some productive discussions and debates between these figures. It would force all sides to make their theories more rigorous. In particular, I’d love to see anyone in the outsider camp have a serious debate/discussion with Dr. Balagangadhara.

      It doesn’t make the outsider position look very credible when they shut down dialogue like this. It isn’t that hard to provide an argument for why we should accept the Freudian methodology, or provide a justification or correction on their translations. I try hard to give Doniger’s camp the benefit of the doubt, but the level of avoidance and hostility they’ve exhibited in the face of criticism makes that quite difficult.

      Thanks for the comment!


  2. dwc says:

    There is a a world of difference between Rajiv Malhotra’s criticism and Balagangadhara’s.

    1. Rajiv Malhotra (RM) and his followers dispute the truth-claims of psychoanalysis. RM also peddles labels as explanations: U-turn; syndrome; difference anxiety; etc. These labels are just redescriptions of the phenomena. Since when redescriptions have become explanations? It is like saying: opium induces sleep because it has sleep-inducing properties. Labeling a phenomena is not an explanation.

    2. The other track RM and his followers have taken is this: stop using western categories to study Indian traditions, and use ‘Indic’ categories to study Indic traditions. They cast this in terms of emic/etic debates. This is an intellectually puerile criticism. Since when categories are western or Indian. For instance, you see some animal, call it ‘rabbit’; others call the same as ‘gavagai’; some others call it ‘kundelu’. Here, one has to maintain a tertiary distinction: word, concept(or category), object(phenomena). No matter how one calls cancer, it remains malignant: so, it does not matter which word one uses to refer something (object/phenomena) in the world, because its nature (category/concept) is same. I can call cancer ‘blah blah’; now I can claim that ‘blah blah’ kills many people and malignant; further that we need a way to kill ‘blah blah’.

    RM does not know these kind of basics.

    3. RM’s another track is to criticize all western and westernized authors for last 400 years, as being imperialistic, colonialistic, what not. Just go to any community college in the states and find the nature of people who teach Hinduism: they are nice, nor are they rich, nor do they support the imperialism/colonialsm, yet they teach what RM and others find abhorrent. So, appealing to imperialism and colonialism does not cut it. One needs to look elsewhere to explain the authors of last 400 years.

    4. Other mistake RM commits is: using a micro explanation (for instance, individual psychology) to explain a macro phonomenon (attributing Individual attributes like stupid, racist, etc to the whole culture).

    5. RM does not evaluate whether he himself has produced knolwedge or whether these western scholars he criticizes have produced knowledge. This is the REAL question everyone has to tackle.

    6.Dilemma of colonialism: Colonialism has brought forth modern medicine, modern sciences, courts, democracy, roads, rails in India. How can one at the same time criticize colonialsm as immoral? This is a puzzle RM and postcolonial writers have not solved. Of course, Balagandhara solved it in his article “Coloniaism and Colonial consciousness”, which is appeared in his latest “Reconceptualizing India studies”

    7.Even if western scholars true scientific theories, unlike Freudian theories, they can never provide knowledge about Indian traditions. Here, the issue is not about what theories one should use to understand Indian traditions. The real issue is that the so-called facts missionaries collected about India and her culture are the base-point for western and westenrized scholars. When they explain/describe India and her traditions, they are explains the facts that missionaries (later, anthropologists) have collected. No fact is neutral, as philosophy of sciences show: every fact is theory-laden, laden with christian theology and its secularized variants (in the current case). So, what western scholars are doing: they are trying to understand Christian-theology-laden descriptions of India and Indian culture. So, one has to study the western culture and its common sense.

    8. For more, check

    • Hello DWC,

      Thanks for putting effort into such a detailed comment. It is lovely to get a response from someone who clearly is familiar with Balagangadhara’s work. With one exception, I am in broad agreement with your points.

      You addressed many of the ideas which I’m planning on bringing up for an upcoming article– one critiquing the Hindu side of this debate. I agree that a lot of Malhotra’s argumentative techniques and accusations are not very substantive. He also frequently makes inferential leaps from the specific to the universal. His allegations of bigotry are often misplaced, and fail to get at the root of the problem. Namely that Western social science is premised uniquely western metaphilosophical concepts (often rooted in Christian theology,) and that much of the “data” gathered by western social science has those premises inbuilt, which seriously degrades the quality of the information. All perfectly valid, and I commend you for bringing them up here.

      I only have one objection, and it entails point 2:

      I fond it odd that you ask “Since when categories are western or Indian?” given your apparent familiarity with Balagangadhara’s work. Also, in point 7 you say “ever fact is theory-laden, laden with christian theology and its secularized variants (in the current case). So, what western scholars are doing: they are trying to understand Christian-theology-laden descriptions of India and Indian culture.” If western social scientific theory is laden with culture specific theological/metaphysical assumptions, then wouldn’t the component concepts/categories which make up those theories also be laden with culture-specific metaphysical assumptions? In other words, aren’t some categories Western and some Indic? And wouldn’t an emic perspective necessitate an awareness of local categories?

      The idea that many of the categories used under the presumption of objectivity by western social scientists have their roots in Christianity, (or Greco-Roman ideas filtered through Christianity) seems pretty core to Balagangadhara’s argument. Obviously this doesn’t extend to such categories as “rabbit” vs “gavagai,” but what concepts like God, Freedom, Human/Natural Rights, Ethics, Will or Logic? Or how about Svatantra, Bhagvan, Deva, Karma, Dharma, Kama, Artha, Papa, Punya? I think that the views of Malhotra and Balagangadhara might not be quite as distinct as you imply.

      I’m sure you are familiar with this, but for the general reader: Quoting Balagangadhara choppily and at length:

      “Funnily enough, the second way in which Christianity expands is *also* familiar to us: the process *secularisation*. I claim that Christianity ‘secularises’ itself in the form of, as it were, ‘dechristianised Christainity’. What this word means is: typically Christian doctrines spread wide and deep (beyond the confines of the community of Christian believers) in the society dressed up in ‘secular’ (that is, not in recognisably ‘Christian’) clothes….The same story applies with respect to what is enshrined in the UN charter. The doctrine of Human Rights (as we know them today) arose in the Middle Ages, when the Franciscans and the Dominicans fought each other. (Both are religious orders within the Catholic Church.) All theories of human rights we know today were elaborated in this struggle that continued nearly for two hundred years. They were *theological* debates, to understand which one needs to understand Christian theology. (Just take my word for it for now.) When John Locke (a British philosopher) started talking about ‘Natural Rights’ in the 18th century, he was simply regurgitating a theological debate within Christianity….My point is much more than that: I claim that *we cannot accept these theories without, at the same time, accepting Christian theology as true.* What the western thinkers have done over the centuries (the Enlightenment period is the best known for being the ‘high point’ of this process) is to *dress up* Christian theological ideas (I am blurring the distinction between the divisions within Christianity) in a secular mantle….Here is my answer: you cannot build a scientific theory based on theological assumptions. What you will get then is *not* a scientific theory, but an embroidering of theology. I put to you that this is what has happened. Most of our so-called social sciences are not ‘sciences’ in any sense of the term: they are merely bad Christian theologies…. Let me just draw a contrast between this way of thinking (which appears to be true on the basis of ‘universal consent’) and our ideas about ‘karma’ and ‘rebirth’. (You need not assume the ‘truth’ of *punarjanma* in order to follow my point.) If the fruits of one’s action do not track (very strictly) the agent across several lives, the idea of both ‘Karma’ and ‘rebirth’ become senseless. Somehow or the other, these notions are parts of our (i.e. Indian) understanding of morality. That means to say, if there was no binding and strict *determinism*, ethics is impossible. Here, then, the contrast: according to the western culture, moral action is impossible if it is not ‘free’; according to us, without strict determinism, moral action is impossible. Yet, how many of us do not act as though ‘freedom’ is a ‘self-explanatory’ concept? Do you know what the origins (it has multiple theological loci) of this problem are? God created Man and gave him the ‘freedom’ to choose between God and the Devil. (In secularised terms, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.) The possibility of ‘salvation’ (i.e. of being ‘saved’ from the clutches of the Devil) depended on this ‘free choice’. Therefore, theological issues arose: What then does ‘human freedom’ mean? Why did God give ‘freedom’ to man? Are we ‘condemned’ to be ‘free’? etc. etc. Our *svatantra* does not mean ‘freedom’ as its contrast term *paratantra* indicates. Our ‘gods’ are *sarva tantra svatantara*, i.e. beings for whom all *tantras* are their ‘own’ (sva). What exactly are we doing then, when we discuss about a ‘free society’, ‘freedom’ of individuals, etc, etc?…For an example of this sort, take the notion of ‘polytheism’ that anthropology of religion, practitioners of ‘religious studies’, sociologists, etc. use. This notion is *contradictio in teminis*, that is to say, it is internally contradictory. ‘Polytheism’ refers to a doctrine that countenances multiple ‘gods’. What does it mean to speak of multiple ‘gods’? It is to say that there is more than one ‘God’. (There must be at least two). However, who or what is ‘God’ that there may be more than one? If, in order to answer this question, one refers to the meaning of this word, unsurprisingly it turns out, the dictionary meaning is also the meaning of Christian religion. Amongst other things, ‘God’ is the creator of the universe. If this is what God means, there cannot be more than one ‘God’. (How can one make sense of the statement that there are multiple ‘creators’, when ‘God’ refers to that being which created the Universe?) How, then, can one speak of ‘polytheism’? Only if one *assumes* that there is one ‘God’ and some several other creatures who are *other* than this ‘God’ and yet claim the status of ‘godhood’. The claim of such creatures *must* be false: because the very definition of ‘God’ attributes this status to only one entity. Or, there must be one ‘true’ God, and many ‘false’ gods, who are different from and other than the True One.”

      (source: but these passages were later formulated into an essay which I don’t have on hand)

      This problem is also mentioned in the essay which you mentioned “Rethinking Colonialism and Colonial Consciousness:”

      “One problem with the study of Indian ethics is that the ancient Indians themselves did not make a clear-cut distinction between the ‘moral’ and other spheres. They did not have a word for our term ‘ethics’ at all The Ancient Greeks introduced not only the word ‘ethica’’, but also gave us many substantial treatises on that subject, including Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. If the Indian text, composed around 650-1200 years ago, does not even have a word for the phenomenon called ‘ethics’, how could it be an ethical tract at all?” (p.17)

      This doesn’t necessarily imply that we should use Indic categories to describe Indic religions. Balagangadhara would assert that it actually implies that we should overhaul the whole methodology of how we do social science (a theory of his which I’m not 100% clear on since I can’t afford his book! I’m skeptical of the idea that we can generate a social science methodology which lacks essentially theological, or unproven metaphysical assumptions, which will inevitably be rooted in one culture or another.) But without overhauling how we do social science, it seems like having to a conceptual framework local to whatever culture is being studied, is a decent approach. At least for the emic perspective. I’m willing to be persuaded on this.

      Also, note that this is how Malhotra responds to Balagangadhara:

      “I, too, started with complex theories about the West, and have a side project which I call “Westology,” the reverse of Indology. …


      Therefore, my immediate goal is to spread AWARENESS of the problem, in ways that are so compelling that no sensible person could hide their head in sand and pretend its not there.”

      While Balagangadhara is the deeper thinker, I don’t think that Malhotra disagrees with his fundamental theory. From an “intellectual movement” perspective, I’d say Malhotra is a propagandist appealing to the mass-man and trying to mobilize people into political action, whereas Balagangadhara is a philosopher and theoretician.

      Thanks again for your input. If you have any further thoughts I would be happy to hear them. I know this was nitpicky, but hey, disagreement is more fun than agreement.



      • dwc says:

        V Sutra:

        Let me clarify about concepts and theory-ladenness.

        All Indians that are brainwashed by RM sell this thesis to the public: Indic traditions (RM used to maintain a yahoo group with the name indictraditions) should be described by Indic categories, but not by western categories. Based on this thesis, many scholars make living in the western academia: a set of scholars are providing emic perspectives; another set of scholars, etic perspectives. All these guys should do some basic study about categories and concepts before using the arsenal of weapons called the emic and etic.

        For instance, ‘gene’ is a four letter word. It is also a concept, and a part of some biological theory. And this was theorized by westerners, and later on improved by both westerners and non-westerners alike. Now the issue: is the concept of gene western or non-western? Is the concept of gene biological or physical or chemical? Is the concept of gene subaltern, postconial, or anticolonial?

        For instance, we don’t have any problems with the claim that gene is a biological concept. Even I don’t have a problem with the claim that gene is a western concept. Gene is a biological concept, because it is a part of some theory in biology. Gene is western because such a theory emerged in the west.

        Now, lets look at another concept phlogiston. It is a word, and a concept as well. It was a part of theory. The concept of phlogiston is both chemical and western: western because that theory emerged in the west; chemical because that theory was postulated to explain some chemical phenomena (oxydation in this case). Later, it was found that phlogiston does not exist. The theory of phlogiston is not taught in schools; however, it is taught in the history and/or philosophy of science courses.

        The difference between gene and phlogiston tells u something: the issue of whether some concept is western is irrelevant. What is relevant is this: whether these theories that embed phlogiston or gene have produced knowledge? In other words, we can ask questions like “whetehr gene or phlogiston exists in the world (here, we are talking about what is in the world, instead of concepts and theories)”. What is the nature of genes and phlogiston?.

        These two examples of gene and phlogiston shows that the way RM and his ilk have formulated the issue of untranslatables and Indic categories is silly. It does not matter whether a westerner or Indian forumlates a theory, as long as that theory is scientific. Scientific = true, non-adhoc, explanatory power, problem-solving capacity, etc (all these depend on which philospohy of science one appeals to).

        For concepts and categories, these posts may be helpful:

        1. Fuss about Indic categories I
        2. Fuss about Indic categories II
        3. Why use Indic categories to describe the world?

        About theory-ladenness.

        Today, we know that theory vs data distinction does not exist, except for many illiterates in social sciences, who have not studied basics. A fact can be a theoretical claim in one context and one can enter into a theoretical debate. IN another context, the same fact is seen as background knowledge.

        For instance, when we test some hypothesis in physics or in the domain of religious studies, we consider boolean logic true; we consider its rules of inference, as true; and so on. However, if you are a student of logic and want to question the theory of boolean logic, then its rule of inference and its meta-logical theorems can become theoretical issues.

        Another example: if you look at any article that discusses evolution, you will see comments like these: Mr A says “evolution is a theory”; Mr B says “evolution is a fact”. To majority of people, evolution is a fact; to others (esp those defend creationism), evolution is a theory. So, how to settle this issue? Just evaluate creationism and evolution as two competetors trying to explain some phenomena. Even there are some philosophy of science books dedicated to this debate.

        If a theory is questionable, any observations that are described using that theory is questionable. That’s what I meant by theory-ladenness. That God gave religion to mankind is a biblical claim; it is a theoretical claim, after all, christian theologies are a set of theories. Today, its common sense variant (or secular translation) is that religion is a cultural universal. So, anthropologists and indologists and religious studies folks have taken this theological claim (that religion is a cultural universal) as a fact. Balu’s theory on religion shows that it is a secularized theological claim, by many ways: (a) by historical analyses/narratives; (b) by building arguments; (c) by building a hypothesis about religion.

        In many other domains of social sciences, many theological claims have become facts, like the way evolution is a fact for you and me, and for great many people. One way to show their theological nature is by coming up with alaternative theories–and RM does not get it either.

        Check this:
        1. Why westology is doomed to fail?

        2. Facts are facts of a theory.

        3. Vivekananda and caste discrimination: theory-ladenness

        Final point: I encounterd Balagangadhara works via RM. However, the more I understand Balu, the less respect I have for RM, who is an intellectual at all. Yes, RM is good for one thing: he knows the symptoms (western representations of India and her traditions); but his diagnosis is faulty and can backfire. RM can’t ignite the imagination of any curious young Indians, because his explanations are phony and adhoc.

        Does RM understand Balu’s theory of religion? No, he does not. In fact, he confessed that on old sulekha board. Today, RM sells his book “On being different” as a replacement and superior to Balu’s book (look at one of RMs comments on his yahoo group).

        Is he a propadandist? Maybe; maybe not. It does not matter for three reasons: his silly explanations (racist, eurocentrist, orientalist, u-turn, differnece anxiety, etc) make even symapathetic western academics stay away from him. Second, he does not have non-adhoc alternative theories for ‘western’ represenations of India. Third, his audience is mainly Indians in the states and English educated ones in India.

        Balu’s research group has taken it to vernacular: in Karnataka, they popularize their theories in kannada, and make many non-English educated aware of whats going on. IN many other instances, they are providing alternatives for the dominant social studies.

  3. Tāṇḍava says:

    A brilliant analysis. I think its notable that the “scholars” who give a Freudian interpretation of Hindu religions never apply the same analysis to the Abrahamic religions. If they were consistent then the snake in the garden of Eden, the “oral orgy” of Jesus feeding the 5,000, and the Roman soldier sticking his spear in Jesus’s side would have them spouting all sorts of sexual ideas about Jews, Christians, and Muslims – but they don’t breathe a word.

    • Yes, it is odd that they seem to treat the Abrahamic traditions with a bit more respect than the Indic traditions. To be fair, there are plenty of irreverent Freudian interpretations of Abrahamic myths, but none by the Doniger school of Hindu scholarship crowd which I’ve ever read. If anyone can provide a source contradicting this I’ll gladly apologize and correct this comment.

  4. […] a side point, I have written criticism of Doniger and her Freudian colleagues in the past. There are legitimate criticisms to make of her, but it becomes impossible to do so when my […]

  5. […] a side point, I have written criticism of Doniger and her Freudian colleagues in the past. There are legitimate criticisms to make of her, but it becomes impossible to do so when my […]

  6. Y Michailik says:

    A question: When is it appropriate to cite Doninger,then?

    • When her logic is consistent, when she doesn’t rely too much on unreliable methodologies like Freudian psychoanalysis to make points with certainty, and when you’ve peeled through her footnotes a bit to make sure that shes substantiating her points by reference to a primary source (which is hopefully in a language you can read, if not, you are in a pickle), or by reference to a broader range of scholarly opinion than just herself. She isn’t always wrong. I think she does a lot of good scholarship. You just have to be careful when parsing through her work, as you should be when reading anything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *