Questioning Wendy Doniger on Hinduism in Hawaii

Wendy Doniger’s scholarship was critiqued at a Roundtable Panel in Hawaii for two hours.  The book in question was Doniger’s, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009).   The venue was the Annual Conference of the very large Association of Asian Studies (AAS), March 31-April 3.  Some 3,000 to 4,000 scholars from many countries were in attendance. The Panel was organized and chaired by Dr. Madan Lal Goel, University of West Florida.

Panelists included Dr. Bharat Gupt of Delhi University and Dr. T R N Rao, Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State University.  Dr. S. Kalyanaraman could not participate on account of last minute health problems.

Dr. Wendy Doniger was at the AAS Conference.  She declined Dr. Goel’s written invitation to participate on the Roundtable Panel on her book, citing prior commitments and busy schedule.  Bharat Gupt had an opportunity to speak with Wendy Doniger during a reception hosted by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS).  She also declined his invitation to attend the Panel, with the comment “I have moved beyond The Hindus.”  At the AIIS reception on Thursday evening, we distributed a leaflet highlighting the dismal and biased nature of Hinduism Studies in the American Academy.  The AIIS reception was attended by some 150-200 scholars of India.

Some 25-30 scholars attended the Roundtable Panel, a better attendance than many other panels scheduled at the same time.  Question/Answer period was a lively one.  Dr. Ramdas Lamb, University of Hawaii, contributed from the floor, as did research students, Martha Rudolph and Sussane Simpson, Prof Jeff Long (Pennsylvania) and William Cullinan (Dialogue Institute, Temple University).

Dr. Cibele Aldrovandi teaches India and Hinduism at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.  During Q/A period she reported that she had used Doniger’s book on Hinduism in her teaching. She was happy to have received a correct appraisal of the Doniger book.  Dr. Ulo Valk teaches India related courses at the University of Tartu in Estonia.  He was familiar with Wendy Doniger book and was also pleased with the critique offered at the Panel.  Dr. Matsuo-Gogate Mizuho teaches International Studies at the Nigata University (Japan), attended the panel discussion.  Copies of “Portrayal of Hinduism in Western Indology” (a short book edited by Kalyanaraman and TRN Rao) were distributed free to those who wanted to have a copy.  A limited number of “Invading the Sacred” and Rajiv Malhotra’s “Breaking India” were also distributed for a fee.

Goel opened the Roundtable discussion with the following brief remarks:

Wendy Doniger is the dean of anti-hindu tirade in the American academy.  Her influence is widespread.  “Wendy’s Children,” a term coined by Rajiv Malhotra, hold important positions at universities and in the media.   Wendy’s usual take on Hindus runs like this: Hindus as a community are pervert, violence-prone, over-sexed and superstitious.  They are oppressive towards animals, lower castes and women.  They worship blood-thirsty and devouring goddesses.  Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, is imperialistic.  Whatever little good is found among Hindus, it is borrowed from the Buddhists, Muslims, and the British.  Like Hitler’s propaganda minister Dr Joseph Goebbels, she repeats again and again her mantra of violent, sex-addicted Hindus.

There is good news. Her influence is on the wane as her biases are opened up for examination. She did not get the NBCC award.  Her status within the academy cannot long last.  We must keep up the fight.

Dr. Bharat Gupt, the first speaker, spoke on the Lingham-Yoni paradigm and several other trivializations in Doniger’s book. Some of his observations are given below:

1. History is Real, Myths are False. Some scholars raised on Abrahamic religions believe in the historical accuracy of the lives of their prophets but classify pagan history as myth, hagiography or ‘narrative’. In this enterprise they miss the ‘paarmaarthika’ or the philosophical truth of the myth. For them the message of the myth is not important but to show the gap between ‘fiction’ and ‘fact’ is the real enterprise, thus belittling the myths.

2. Trivialization of Hindu Symbols. Dr. Doniger says that the book was creating a “narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga … is set in a yoni…” (p3).  Dr. Gupt asked if this simile goes deep enough to draw any parallel between religion and history on one hand and Shiva as Creator and Parvati as Creation on the otherhand. Nowhere has Doniger showed how Hindu religious concepts have shaped India’s history. When for Doniger Hindu religion is shaped by political and economic events including the foreign invasions, that is, when history was creating religion, how was this simile justified? Parvati does not create Shiva nor vice versa, in fact are the two actually One. Doniger thus, has merely vandalized a philosophical image. The linga-yoni paradigm thus, fails to illustrate Doniger’s narrative of Hindu religion versus Hindu history. Doniger’s ‘linga-yoni’ are thus no more than a catchy phrase, as she ends up writing neither an account of Hindu beliefs nor of Hindu history.

3. Jacketed in Distortion. The book itself, added Dr. Gupt, is jacketed in distortion as it shows Krishna riding a gopika-horse. This design turns on its head the well known Krishna-Gopika relationship based on equality between the divine (Brahma) and the individual souls (jiva), into a master-slave relationship termed as mind-body dichotomy. A captive of hippomania, Doniger reduces gopikas to stand for ‘sexual addiction’, to be controlled by the mind (Krishna) as the master. Doniger forgets that no Indian darshana equates the mind with the Sat/Brahma/Nirvana.

4. Women are Sex objects only.  Because both women and animals did not know Sanskrit, for Doniger they become the Other of the Brahmins and “primary objects of addiction and the senses that cause addiction are likened to horses; animals often represent both animals and women the lower classes.” (p 9). In the creation of this dichotomy between Sanskrit and the Prakrits, Doniger totally overlooks the fact that throughout in pre-colonial India, the performing arts, temples, rituals, pilgrimages and sacred sites (tirthas), and wandering sermonizers were disseminating the ideas contained in Sanskrit texts to even the poorest in the land. Doniger’s divide of the Indian population into Sanskrit and its Other is unhistorical. It is based on a bookwormish neo-Orientalism.

5. Belittling of Harappa’s Culture. Dr. Doniger’s sole aim is to, de-sacralize all Indus images. The three horn-ed deity is for her “just a guy, or that matter a gal, in a three horned hat” and so on.  Doniger, who sees a phallus yatra, tatra sarvatra, refuses to admit the proto-historic Shiva’s erect phallus and suggests that “what appears to be a phallus is in reality the end of the waistband.” (p74).For her, it was not a proto Hindu culture, “How many (Hindu deer) can you see hiding in this (Indus) forest?” (p82).

6. Re-incantation of Aryan Invasion Theory and Vedas as Nomadic Songs: For her, Aryans ‘strolled in from Caucasus (p 92)’. “Slowly over a century or two, the Vedic Aryans changed linguistic, social and cultural map of India. Aryans like the “Central Asian Turks and of the British Raj, first entered Indian not as military conquerors but as traders and merchants, but in the end, it took force majeure to establish and maintain the control of the subcontinent. (p 92).” She sings the old colonial tune, India was constructed by foreigners, the horse and Sanskrit are foreign to India. The holy horse is indeed writing the history of India from the Aryan migration to the cover of this book.

7. Hindus are Serial Polytheists. On the subject of Hindu worship of several gods, Doniger is unable to comprehend the Truth that the One appears as many.  She in fact makes the whole issue trivial by suggesting the example of serial monogamy. Vedics (and all Indic religions since then), regard the god they are worshipping at a given time as supreme and the only one, just as the modern Euro-American male praises his current wife as the ultimate beloved. The profoundest achievement of Indian Darshana, namely seeing the Truth in many forms, worshipping God both as with Form and without it, regarding all forms as valid, is made the subject of a joke here.

8. Degrading Karma, Tyaaga and Moksha. “The development of the idea of merit or karma as something “to be earned, accumulated, occasionally transferred and eventually realized” owes much to the post Vedic moneyed economy” (p165). For her, there is no vision of the quest for immortality, in the Vedic samhitas. “Their primary concerns were vedic: family, offspring, sons, the lineage of the flesh” (p178).  Very soon the inheritors of the Vedas developed a sense of disgust with the crowded areas of the new life of commerce and prosperity and harking back to the simple days on saddlebags, they glorified the lives of the people who renounced all the good things and went into the forest. Their desire to escape was so great that an idea of no return or no rebirth or liberation moksha was also developed so that the Gangetic plains would become less crowded. There is no great Indian thought that Doniger does not trivialize.

9. What do the Animals and Women ‘Speak’ After All? Dr. Doniger never tells us of contributions through distinctive ideas or exemplary action that women have made in the Hindu world or how animals have had a better deal at the hands of the Hindus.  In fact, she only excels in adding some layers to their suffering through dubious psychoanalysis which is not corroborated by the textual or other evidence. Thus Vali, a recognized victim in the Indian tradition, reveals Doniger, is actually killed because Rama wanted to vent on him the anger that he had pent up against his brothers Bharata and Lakshmana.

10. Creating a Torn Apart Hindu. It seems to me, that leaving aside the tactic of using shocking metaphors, she is delving into the myths of Hindus, to establish some basic psychological traits she thinks the Hindus have developed as a people. So, here we have, some agonic paradigms of the Hindu mind such as: violence vs ahimsa, sensuality vs. renunciation, Puritanism (read Brahmanism) vs. bodily urges, humans vs animals, horses vs cows, upper castes vs. lower castes and males vs females. The Hindu Tree of Life (kalpataru) is replaced in this book by a Cactus Donigerus; professedly full with nectar of diversity and sensuality, but in reality no more than a bundle of flesh piercing thorns.

Dr. TRN Rao (the second speaker) presented his paper on three topics:

1. Wendian Indology (WI) is defined as the writings of Dr. Doniger and ‘Her Children’ (her former students) on Hindu texts, gods and their sacred symbols. He critiqued Paul Courtright’s scandalous book on Ganesha, which Wendy Doniger endorsed profusely in her Foreword: “This is a book that I would have loved to have written…A book about Ganesa! What fun that would be!” Here, Ganesa, worshipped as God by millions of Hindus, is portrayed in deeply offensive and repulsive language.

“Its (Ganesa’s) 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.” (Page 121)  “So Ganesa takes on the attributes of his father but in an inverted form, with an exaggerated limp phallus-ascetic and benign- whereas Siva is a “hard” (ur-dhvalinga), erotic and destructive.” (Page 121)

“Both in his behavior and iconographic form Ganesa resembles in some aspects, the figure of the eunuch, . . . Ganesa is like eunuch guarding the women of the harem.”    (Page 111)

“He [Ganesa] remains celibate so as not to compete erotically with his father, a notorious womanizer, either incestuously for his mother or for any other woman for that matter.” (Page 110) “Although there seems to be no myths or folktales in which Ganesa explicitly performs oral sex; his insatiable appetite for sweets may be interpreted as an effort to satisfy a hunger that seems inappropriate in an otherwise ascetic disposition, a hunger having clear erotic overtones..   .” (Page 111)

Dr Rao pointed out that none of Courtright’s distorted characterizations of Lord Ganesa has any scriptural validity according to Hindu tenets or eminent Hindu scholars. This Wendian Indology is not just deeply offensive and repulsive, but also borders on child pornography as critiqued by Dr. Shree Vinekar M.D., a well-known American psychoanalyst.  It is a dastardly crime in all civilized countries of the world. Dr. Rao contended that Wendian Indologists’ eroticizing sacred symbols of Hinduism is outright ‘unholy and un-American.’

2.  Donger’s Castaphobia is defined as a trauma of excessive caste fixation. Doniger has made sure we read ‘Caste’, High-caste, Low-caste, Casteless, Dalits, High-caste Brahmins at least ten times in several pages. The word ‘caste’ is a very loose translation, a Western construct for ‘Varņa, jathi or kula’. The Sanskrit professor should have mentioned Bhagavad-Gita (4.13), where Krishna tells Arjuna:

Catur varņam mayā śŗshtam, guņakarma vibhāgasah

(The four varņas, or divisions, are created by me based on the modes and qualities of the work performed.)

The story “Ekalavya cuts of his Thumb” told by Doniger (page, 288-9) is incomplete and replete with innuendoes. The low-caste tribal lad Ekalavya appears in over ten pages. She mentions Harivamsam (Mahabharata chapter -The Dynasty of Vishnu) a few times, but she could not mention Ekalavya as a first paternal cousin of Krishna or also as a first maternal cousin of Arjuna or of his death in the hands of Krishna in a subsequent war. How are we, the readers, to understand this scholarship?

[A complete version of Ekalavya story can be found in Portrayal of Hinduism in Western Indology, World Association of Vedic Studies, 2010; Editors: TR Narasimha Rao and S Kalyanaraman.]

3. Dr. Doniger dwells on tribals, low-castes and dalits in myriad ways, but does not mention even once about the Criminal Tribals Act (CTA of 1871) of the British Raj in India.   The inhuman Act was first notified and enforced in northern India and subsequently extended to Bengal and other provinces. It notified 160 castes, who presently constitute the core of today’s ‘scheduled castes’ as “hereditary criminals” on the ground that as a community they were passing on the professions like theft, burglary, house-breaking, robbery, dacoity and counterfeiting of coins from one generation to the next.  

The total headcount of the so-called criminal tribes branded as ‘pariahs’ by former Christian British rulers of India at that time was approximately six crores (60 millions) constituting nearly 30 percent of the then Hindu population.

Doniger may be ignorant or she chose to ignore the CTA of 75 years, the most heinous human rights violations of British Raj.  If she wants to look like a half-decent scholar, she should have questioned:  If the (Christian) British rulers were so solicitous about the condition of the deprived members of the Scheduled Castes, why did they not enact a law to ban untouchability during their long rule?

Doniger finds little regard to mention favorably of the many Hindu saints and reformers. Any unbiased historian can find the inherent dynamics of Hindu religion. To quote R.K. Ohri:

“Many social reformers had relentlessly campaigned against the evil of untouchability.  Swami Dayanand, the founder of Arya Samaj condemned untouchability and worked for reforming the Hindu society by preaching equality of all castes.  Lokmanya Tilak once publicly declared that he would denounce even God if He accepted untouchability.  Veer Savarkar had personally led the so-called untouchables into temples in order to eradicate the evil.  Gandhi carried forward the campaign against untouchability started by Tilak and Savarkar.

Numerous Hindu saints and savants like Guru Ravidas, Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh and founder of Arya Samaj, Swami Dayanand Saraswati tirelessly worked for eradication of untouchability. The great saint Ramanuja of South India (1017-1137) openly condemned untouchability and adopted many so-called untouchables as his disciples. In Andhra Pradesh, Veera Brahmendra Swamy (10th century) campaigned against the evil.”

These are just a few of the examples of Hindu social reformers taking up cudgels against untouchability. By ignoring these well documented facts Wendy Doniger has poured unmerited ridicule on Hindu religion and scriptures in her castaphobic history of the Hindus.

Dr. Goel, the third speaker, focused on Dr. Doniger’s discussion of the Islamic Imperial rule in India (1201-1717 approximately).  Doniger’s take on Islam runs as follows:

Muslim marauders destroyed some Hindu temples, not many. Temple destruction was a long standing Indian tradition; “the Muslims had no monopoly on that.”  Muslim invaders looted and destroyed Hindu temples because they had the power to do so.  If Hindus had the power, they would do the same in reverse.  The Jizya—the Muslim tax on non-Muslims—was for Hindu protection and a substitute for military service. Hindu “megalomania” for temple building in the Middle Ages was a positive result of Muslim demolition of some Hindu temples. Muslim royal women did not rigidly keep to purdah (the veiling and seclusion of women).  They picked the more strict form of purdah from the Hindu Rajput women. Gandhi’s nonviolence succeeded against the British.  But it failed against the tenaciously held Hindu ideal of violence that had grip on the real emotions of the masses.  Dr Goel pointed out that none of this is factual history.

Goel pointed that liberal professors usually paint a picture of benign Islam, with all the contradictory evidence notwithstanding.  In order to paint Islam positively, other religions, especially Hinduism, is painted black.  This attitude of subservience toward Islam suggests Dhimmitude, a concept developed by a Jewish Egyptian woman, Bat Ye’or (Daughter of the Nile). Dhimmitude is a social and psychological condition that afflicted defeated Jewish and Christian communities under Islam’s victorious march in the Near East. Dhimmitude is a state of fear and insecurity on the part of infidels who were required to accept a condition of humiliation. Dhimmis lived under some 20 disabilities. Many Western scholars as well as Hindu elite manifest in their views the Dhimmitude. Whereas dhimmitude resulted from real-life powerlessness and humiliation under Islamic rule in the previous centuries, present-day dhimmi syndrome results from some combination of the following, pointed out Dr Goel:

  • The corrupting power of oil money: Saudi Arabia has spent over $80 billion to export puritanical Wahabism.
  • Guilt feelings among the Western elite on account of the Crusades.
  • Multiculturalism: the belief that all cultures and ways of life are equally valid. Even genital mutilation and wife-beating are condoned.
  • The rising Islamic population in the West and the politics of vote-banks.

Dr. Doniger’s scandalous book on the Hindus and her praise of Islam makes sense only in the light of a larger global trend—a trend that seeks to re-package Islamic history as a force for tolerance and progress.

A Fuller text may be seen at:

Dr. Kalyanaraman’s power-point paper which could not be delivered in person, is available online at

The three presentations were followed by a lively question/answer give and take.


April 23, 2011 (with edits of earlier report)

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One Reply to “Questioning Wendy Doniger on Hinduism in Hawaii”

  1. A faithful report of a very effective roundtable in the Hawaii conference of AAS which took on Wendy Doniger’s socalled History of Hinduism and took it apart systematically. Dr Kalyanaraman should be warmly congratulated for collecting the information and presenting it for medha journal readers.

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