In Defense Of Doubt Or How Intellectual Walls Have A Terrible Way Of Leaking

Someone threw an egg at historian Wendy Doniger during a lecture in London in November 2003.

Seven years later Wendy Doniger threw a book back at them.

But more about this scholarly debate in a bit.

Reading Raymond Schwab’s masterpiece The Oriental Renaissance: Europe’s Rediscovery of India and the East 1680 – 1880 one is struck by the fact that though European colonialism is rightfully associated with political, social and military domination, exploitation and control, it also contained within it a powerfully detailed scholarly aspect. The results and realizations of this scholarship led to what Schwab calls the Oriental Renaissance that not only changed Europe and its ideas of itself forever, but continues to affect (adversely and otherwise) the peoples and cultures of the once-colonized Orient.

Of course, most of us know about the subtly political and strategic aspects of this ‘discovery’ through the writings of Edward Said and his seminal text Orientalism. But Schwab’s is a different project, and an altogether integrative one. It is, as he himself explains it, a project that documents the individuals and scholarly efforts ‘to know’ the Orient and whose painstakingly detailed studies profoundly reshaped Europe, its academies, intellectuals and its society. It was no mere academic task. It was a revolutionary one:

The writings deciphered by the orientalists made the world, for the first time in human history, a whole. With the establishment of oriental studies an entirely new meaning was introduced for the word “mankind”. We can hardly imagine that the acquired meaning, which we take for granted, has not always been present in humanity’s consciousness. Nevertheless, it is a young idea…Suddenly the partial humanism of the classics became the integral humanism that today seems natural to us…[H]umanism began to be global when the scientific reading of Avestan and Sanskrit scripts unlocked innumerable unsuspected scriptures.

(Schwab, R The Oriental Renaissance Page 4)

And this was no mere academic or intellectual exercise, but a physically and emotionally demanding one. One is confronted by the focus, no the madness, that gripped the likes of Anquetil-Duperron’s life as he trekked through impossible jungles and endured immense physical hardships to simply complete his obsessions. Many of these men practically lost their minds and souls in the pursuit of their scholarships. Theirs was a complete and passionate engagement with their subjects that went beyond the desire to fulfill the demands of a colonial age, or the imperatives of imperial control. It went to something essentially human; the need to know.

Raymond Schwab himself was a man of letters. I love that phrase – a man of letters. He was a poet, biographer, novelist, editor, translator and scholar. As Said points out in his foreword to The Oriental Renaissance, Schwab is not known to even those who claim to be voices of authority on the Romantic movement. What perhaps most interested me was that he was someone ‘…whose interests observed no national boundaries and whose capacities were deeply transnational.’ The book itself reflects these values as it explores connections, influences, exchanges, and revelations.

He offers the Orient and the Occident not as conflicted opposites, but as complements to each other, continually and deeply influencing each other and transforming each other. The cultural, intellectual, and scholarly exchanges were extensive and their impact so significant that, as Schwab himself points out, it enabled them to ‘…dismiss the centuries of Augustus and Louis XIV.’ (page 13) And he does so by concentrating on the lives not of the grand masters of European intellectual, philosophical and literary thought, but on the smaller men – the translators, the compilers, the scholars, whose unflagging effort make possible the major works of Goethe, Hugos, and Schopenhauers.

(Said, Edward The World, The Text & The Critic Page 257).

And throughout it all it is marked by, as Said says, ‘…the sheer pleasure of its learning.” (page 266)

But pleasure used so blithely to characterize learning does not imply idle enjoyment. In Schwab there is never art analyzed or intellectual achievement limned without some corresponding sense of actual involvement in the world. Thus what his historical research discovers for him, and causes his readers actively to enjoy, is the real underpinning of cultural life, which is that a culture is not mere collection, or incorporation, by triumphant egos here and there, but rather it is a work performed by human agents of society, social bonds, generational place, history….Culture for Schwab is less a pantheon than a lyceum, and a bustling one at that…He urges the network over the isolated cell. By no other perspective can cultures be understood as the systems they really are, systems over whose activity the individual critical historian holds the bridle of a vigilant historical understanding and a moral judgment.

In an age determined to find divisions, separations, ‘civilizations’ and differences, Schwab’s work comes as a breath of fresh air and a powerfully moving inspiration. It reminds us of the inter-connectedness between things, the arbitrariness of concepts such as ‘The West’ and ‘The East’. It cuts past the fear and suspicion that has often blind the eyes – intellectual, political, social and cultural, that the two ‘worlds’ have turned towards each other. It is, in Schwab’s own words, the search and explication of ‘an integrated humanity’.

I would add that The Oriental Renaissance, much like the many works discussed in it, is underpinned by that most troubling, and ultimately the most liberating of human instincts; doubt. By doubt I speak here not of a cynical or rejectionist attitude that simply refuses to hear. I speak of a doubt that inspires us towards exploration, investigation and experimentation. A doubt that accepts the non-existence of absolutes and yet revels in the complex and uncertain. A doubt that simply pushes us to invite complexity and inter-relatedness. A doubt that challenges rather than answers, opens rather than closes, reveals uncertainties rather than pander in absolutes and offers joys of discovery and alternative possibilities, rather than prejudiced purities and mythologies.

Doubt. The one trait fundamentalists lack. The one trait that they in fact fear. Doubt. The trait that most divides those who first ask questions and search for alternatives answers, and those who first construct answers and then fit to them questions. Doubt. The trait that motivates the intellectual, and paralysis the fundamentalist. Doubt. The trait whose convoluted pathways are the source of joy and completion for one, and the source of anxiety and rejection for the other. Doubt. The trait that is embraced by the curious, erased by the purist.

∞

Rajiv Malhotra is a very influential man. A multi-millionaire, he is the founder of The Infinity Foundation whose web page explains that it is:

…a non-profit organization based in Princeton, New Jersey engaged in making grants in the areas of compassion and wisdom. In the area of compassion it has funded organization workings for health and human services…In the area of wisdom…[it] seeks to promote East-West dialogue and a proper understanding of the Indian civilizational experience in the world, particularly in the United States and India. (Italics are mine)

But it does something else. It works to severely curtail creative, imaginative, scholarly work on ancient Indian history and scriptures. As Martha Nussbaum, the American intellectual and philosopher explains in her book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence & India’s Future, Mr. Malhotra and his colleagues have:

…focused on Internet attacks against…scholars …on his website sulekha.com. Malhotra’s voluminous writings show a highly aggressive, threatening personality. His attacks are sarcastic and intemperate. He shows little concern for factual accuracy…makes no attempt to describe the book or books he attacks …instead his broadsides are lists of alleged mistakes or distortions, conveying little or no sense of what the book is about and what it argues. Malhotra also has associates…all [of whom] pursue a common enterprise; the discrediting of American scholars of Hinduism as sex-crazed defamers of sacred traditions. (page 248)

And he does so with an underlying ideology that claims that only those who belong to a particular religious, cultural, and social tradition are best positioned to research, comment and explain it. Hence his sweeping attacks on some of America’s most respected and experienced scholars of Sanskrit and Hindu scripture remain deeply pinned to the idea that the scholars are indulging in colonial denigration of local traditions and are acting ‘disrespectfully’. And most egregiously that:

…these American scholars are obsessed with the sexual and are disrespectful of Indian religious traditions.

(Nussbaum, M The Clash Within, Page 246)

And the one person who has long been at the focus of their attacks has been Professor Wendy Doniger and those, students and other independent academics, who may be associated with her. Professor Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. She is, as Nussbaum goes on to explain, generally considered to be:

…one of America’s major scholars in the humanities, wide-ranging, unusually imaginative and poetic, capable of illuminating fundamental issues through a deft use of comparative analysis. (page 249)

The attacks against her, and other scholars believed to be directly and indirectly influenced by her, obsess about the sexual. In a essay called Wendy’s Child Syndrome Mr. Malhotra critized ‘…the eroticiszation of Hinduism by Wendy Doniger…and her large cult of students, who glorify her in exchange for her mentorship’. Statements like this not only reflect the limited understanding Mr. Malhotra has for the academic research and peer review process, but they also reveal the fear of the sexual and the negative connotations of anything sexual that they seem to carry within them.

In recent years two other scholars who have faced threats, abuse and public humiliations include Professor Paul B. Courtright and Profesor Jeffery J. Kripal. Courtright is the author of Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings and Kripal the author of Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. And in both cases the more vociferous objections were about the ‘sexualizing’ of religious and spiritual deities, their myths and their lives. Wendy Doniger coincidentally wrote the forewords to both these scholar’s works. The threats and abuse led to Professor Courtright seeking an FBI investigation and asking for police protection for his family, though he continues to bravely defend his research and present his findings. Professor Kripal however was hounded away from his work in India and now continues his research on topics away from Indian historiography and scriptures. But he did so only after offering an extensive defense of his work, while acknowledging errors in translation that did exist, and which can be read online here:

http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kalischi/

He has since gone on to publish Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism where he applies many of the same methods of Kali’s Child to Christian, Islamic, and Jewish mysticism, to the lives of Western scholars, and to his own life revealing that it isn’t Hinduism alone where sexual meaning and thought is applied towards understanding.

Confronted by accusation of inaccuracy and deviancy, the scholars have responded with scholarly re-evaluations where needed, and adamant intellectual and research argumentation where essential. But the attacks and harassment has continued. In his piece Wendy’s Child Syndrome Mr. Malhotra moves on and attempts to argues that :

…there is a lack of Indic perspective that would…provide equivalent counter balance to Western scholar’s theories, creating an asymmetric discourse. Further, he says, most of the Hinduism scholars are either whites or Indians under the control of whites. One does not find Arabs, Chinese, blacks, Hispanics, etc., engaged in this kind of Hindu phobia racket.

(From Braverman, Amy M “The Interpretation of Gods” The University of Chicago Magazine, December 2004)

The attempts to ethnicize the debate signifies a retreat in the face of a lack of facts, research, method and rigor, into provincialism and obscurantism. In the secular and intellectual investigation into the emergence, ideas, ideologies, meaning and history of worldly texts, there is no guarantee that those who ‘belong’ to a religious or cultural tradition are uniquely or more appropriately qualified to critique, examine, question and elaborate on it.

And despite their ‘divine’ nature, scriptures are worldly text as they emerge/enter the world, are interpreted by those in it, for actions within it. This is perhaps a conclusion to a debate that occurred as early as 11th century Cordoba between the Batinists and the Zahirites as they argued for the best ways to explore and interpret the divine words offers in the Koran. But more on that in a separate post.

It can be argued that those who belong to a particular tradition are uniquely unqualified to offer critical insight because of the conflicts that may emerge between insights, knowledge, realizations and blind belief. One need not be Jewish first to study the manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza and explore them for their political, economic, social, cultural and spiritual possibilities and meanings. Furthermore, it ignores the entire corpus of Indic research to which these American scholars are heirs to.

That being said, a whole host of eminent Indian historians and scholars have produced original research and collaborated, informed, influenced and enlightened the American academy the names of Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, Ahmad Aziz, D.N. Jha come to mind. And they have done so not as a result of their ‘insider’ position, but as highly qualified, rigorously scientific and openly curious individuals. But they too have been attacked, though this time by the Hindutva and other Hindu nationalists. Professor Thapar, D.N. Jha and others have been abused, threatened and in some even have been assaulted Professor Laine, author of Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, became the target of Maharashtran bigots and his Indian research collaborators and departments where he conducted research were physically attacked by goons.

So much for the ‘insider’ argument. Though the anti-intellectual attacks in the USA and those within India are not part of the same movement, they do carry within them the same instinct that sees history and research as threats to a manufactured ‘purity’ and ‘sanctity’. They both erase doubt and violently confront questioning and investigation.

It is evident that these protectors of Hindu ‘dignity’ are determined to impose not ‘balance’ or ‘counter-balance’ but ‘blind belief’, selective mythology and obscurantist ‘purity’ all in the name of ‘the right interpretation’ and the ‘dignity’ of Hindus and Hinduism. Theirs is an ideological mission, not an academic one. And the likes of Mr. Malhotra has bought along thousands of followers, some of whom are probably well meaning Hindus who may not subscribe to the Infinity Foundation’s ideologies but nevertheless find a need to defend the ‘dignity’ of their spirituality.

For whereas one can certainly challenge, and ought to challenge, the works and perspectives of even the most eminent of scholars. But the belief that the American academic system in fact does not challenge the works and that a ‘mentorship’ approach ensures the publication of these work is sheer ignorance. The idea that the American academy is a ‘cult’ or an institution without criticism, review, and revision perhaps naive and insulting. These defenders of ‘purity’ attempt to erase decades of scholarship by a whole host of men and women who have given their lives to the study of Sanskrit and pre-modern Indian works, and replace them with self-confirming polemics and bromides.

As Martha Nussbaum points out:

The study of comparative religion and the history of religions is not a serious academic subject in India. One does not find departments of religious studies, in part because the humanities are in general not well supported, in part because religion is just not seen as something to be studied historically and comparatively.

In the United States…comparative religious studies are flourishing, and for some time the study of Indian religions has been a prominent topic of high level scholarship. The great Sanskritist Daniel Ingalls…trained several generation of scholars, including Wendy Doniger at the University of Chicago…and Sheldon Pollack…who recently moved to Columbia University…the [two] most important centers of ancient Indian textual and religious study.

(Nussbaum, M The Clash Within Page 245)

In the face of decades of committed and dedicated work, a rigorous and detailed intellectual heritage, and a large group of passionate scholars whose life work remains India and her heritage, the modern day obscurantists stand flummoxed.

Without insights, they turn to eggs.

∞

Wendy Doniger’s new work The Hindus: An Alternative History was nominated for the 2009 National Books Critics Circle Award. It soon came under attack. As one of the jury explained:

In January, the National Book Critics Circle named it as one of five finalists in nonfiction for 2009. Around 30 protesters gathered outside the Tishman auditorium of New School University in New York when Doniger appeared with other finalists who were reading from their books at a public event. Countless others (well, thousands anyway) had signed petitions calling for Penguin to withdraw The Hindus from the market. Clearly “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is not a Vedic principle.

… Over the past six weeks or so, I have been the recipient of scores of aggrieved letters about the many crimes of Wendy Doniger. Her book was a work of hate literature. It was full of mistakes. Recognition of it would aid the international Muslim conspiracy. Doniger is obsessed with sex. All Hindus everywhere were outraged. Did I mean to provoke a clash of civilizations?

The denunciations were repetitious and sometimes very imaginative. It was often clear that the letter writer had never actually been in the same room as a copy of The Hindus, let alone read any of it. Calling it a “porno book” as some indignant parties did, seemed likely to yield unanticipated consequences. I imagined an eager 14-year old searching its almost 800 pages and finding only intellectual stimulation.

(McLemee, S, “Scholarship Or Sacrilege”, Inside Higher Education, March 17th 2010)

The book did not win the award, and the protests in fact were not even a consideration in the final deliberation. But the obscurantists were quick to claim credit, and encourage such campaigns of vilification and harassment to continue against others, arguing that:

Antihinduism of Doniger…is on par with the hate literature of White Supremacist and Antisemitic academics.

It is evident that the obscurantists remain determined and organized despite the brilliance of Doniger’s work, the breath of her erudition and the care and dedication of her towards her chosen subject.

In a review of Doniger’s The Hindus: Alternative History, Ananya Vajpeyi, a Professor at University of Massachusetts in Boston, points out that:

Doniger and others effected a paradigm shift that younger scholars of South Asia take for granted. We have come a long way from Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss and Louis Dumont, who could write foundational sociological, anthropological and theoretical treatises on India, indeed, build entire sub-disciplines around the study of India, from afar. The compendious nature of The Hindus reflects the versatility, breadth, depth, complexity, and cross-disciplinary ability, not to mention the first-hand knowledge, that is now required of anyone who may venture to write about India, especially in its long pre-modernity, which takes up the bulk of this book. The so-called post-Orientalist turn has completely altered the rules of the game for South Asian studies.

(Vajpeyi, A “Sea Of Stories”, The National July 30th 2009)

But this is precisely what the modern-day defenders of Hindu ‘dignity’ are fighting against. In fact, their abuse, caricatures, harassment and threats may already have had a serious impact on young scholars. Again, it is Martha Nussbaum who perhaps warns us best when she says:

Worse still, however, is the impact of these attacks on young scholars who have not yet chosen a dissertation topic or even, perhaps, a field of study. Graduate students are deterred from writing on topics made controversial by Malhotra’s attacks. The Hindu right in India has had a chilling effect on scholarship on other topics, particularly archeology and art history. Talented people who observe the state of affairs may choose to study some other religion, and not Hinduism in the first place.

(Nussbaum, M The Clash Within, Page 258)

Far from being battles in lands distant, these issues touch on the very ideas of academic freedom. The Malhotra’s and others like him represent self-appointed guardians of traditions while lacking genuine weapons of argument and scholarship. Scholarship expects argument and debate. What it cannot confront is harassment, abuse, insinuation, violence and eggs and the accusation of blasphemy – a word with little or no meaning in the corridors of academia, but a death sentence in the mental hallways of the fundamentalists.

Ω

In October 2000 Dr. Younus Shaikh, a lecturer at a medical college in Pakistan, was sentenced to death under the country’s blasphemy law, for making the statement that the Prophet did not become a Muslim until after turning 40 and that his parents were in fact not Muslims since they died before the foundation of the religion itself. He was promptly arrested, jailed and sentenced to death. As he describes his ordeal in his own words:

For the next two years, I was held in solitary confinement in a very small death cell in the Central Jail, Rawalpindi, a dark and dirty death cell with unbearable, stinking and distasteful food. There was no facility for walking or exercise, and I was without books, newspapers, medication or treatment for my worsening diabetes. I remained constantly under threat of murder by Islamic fundamentalist inmates in jail for murder and gang rape, and by some religiously-minded prison warders. I appealed. My appeal was heard over several sessions lasting 15 long months before the two judges managed to disagree over their verdict, one Islamic/minded judge rejected the appeal without giving any legal grounds for doing so, while the other legal-minded judge stated that the prosecution had failed to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt and that the witnesses were neither trustworthy nor reliable. The referee High Court judge took another year and sent the case for retrial.

(Shaikh, Y, Blasphemy – My Journey Through Hell)

He was acquitted in 2003 and fled into exile.

In a post on my personal blog site The Spinning Head I earlier wrote a short piece about the mutations and sheer intellectual and historical horrors that pervade the pages of Pakistan’s high school social studies and history text books. Titled The Hindus Live In Small & Dark Homes Or Educating Our Child Soldiers I tried to point out how closed, prejudiced and ahistorical readings were designed to raise generations that were intellectually and emotionally closed to ‘the other’ and suspected them, and hated them. I pointed out that:

Our child soldiers are being prepared as we speak. They, with their distortions and prejudices, will eventually man the corridors of diplomacy, politics, military and the citizenry. They will … carry within them the lessons of their youth, the unexamined prejudices and hatred of their adolescence. To imagine that their distorted world views, developed under the authority of a state and its adult voices, will not color their engagement with ‘the other’ is to be naive at best, irresponsible at worse. It is a world view apparent in the language of our military and our politicians today bent as they are on working with caricatures and generalizations that convince them that only barbarians and killers live on the other side of the borders.

I could just as well have added that the same education programs, dogmatic and rote, raise individuals that cannot tolerate complexity and the simple questioning of religious and spiritual myths they have been fed since childhood and mindlessly accepted as ‘pure’ and ‘truths’. Any violation of this sacrosanct condition becomes then a violation of their individual self and requires a violent and vehement defense. It requires a closer, it demands erasure, it provokes aggressive harassment and desire for humiliation.

It becomes that most subjective of judgments; blasphemy.

Ω

Blasphemy: noun ( pl. -mies) the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things.

Blasphemy: a word with little or no meaning in the corridors of academia, but a death sentence in the mental hallways of the fundamentalists.

Ω

Reading Raymond Schwab’s The Oriental Renaissance is to marvel at its celebration of complexity, influence, inter-relatedness and transformation. The Second Renaissance saw the passing of one age and welcomed a new one and it did so in the shape of an enthusiastic, passionate, rigorous, and often ‘mad’ intellectual adventure. Edward Said summarized the venture of this book by pointing out that:

…some scholarship, even as it excludes material, demonstrates the complexity both of what it includes and of what it does not include. There is no surgical way of prescribing just how much complexity and richness will suffice…We return then, to such matters as patience, affection, enthusiasm; they seem to express themselves infectiously and implicitly in a scholar’s work…That we can thereafter study Romanticism, or investigate the influence of academies upon nineteenth-century intellectual life, or analyze the relationship between philology and ideology or all those things and then many more is why Schwab’s romance of ideas itself deserves serious attention.

(Said, Edward The World, The Text And The Critic, Page 266)

Is our modernity not worthy of the same? Are we merely materially ambitious, but intellectually impoverished? Will our new found economic confidence merely translate itself into bigotry, anti-intellectualism and criminality? Will our modernity be a trans-formative, inspiring, evocative and seductive to the world, or just violent, reductive, and infantile? The humanities remains a low art in South Asia, and as I read the screaming, abusive words of this self-selected guardians of all that is ‘pure’ and ‘right’ in ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Islam’ or any other such construct, I begin to sense the consequences.

Ω

A friend returns a borrowed copy of Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity. I noticed a page with its corner turned and open it only to find myself reading:

It is as odd to say that humans need roots as to say that they need foliage. But a generation which values adaptability as much as tradition, which seeks energy and creativity and openness of mind, must like the idea of drinking in the light of the sun, from whatever direction it shines. The smell of the air becomes sweeter when roots produce leaves, which makes it possible for other forms of life to exist. Applied to humans, this means that it is not just where they come from that matters, but where they are going, what kind of curiosity or imagination they have, and how they use it, both by day and by night. (Page 51)

UPDATE: A friend pointed me towards a rather unique text called The Heathen In His Blindness… by S.N. Balagangadhara. Dr. Balagangadhara has also spoken extensively it turns on out on Wendy Doniger and ‘her children’ in a series of rather densely argued essays he wrote and which are featured on Mr. Malhotra’s website sulekha.com. It is clear that it will take me some time to work through what are very complex but appear to be subtle arguments.

But I begin to make my way through his work The Heathen In His Blindness… which critiques the very language and frameworks used by western scholars to comprehend and explicate upon India and her religious traditions. That is, whether the way western scholars have looked at India tells us more about the west than about India itself. A fascinating question and area of research and definitely a unique text. His work is addressed to the scholars who study India, as he himself states:

…this essay is addressed to an audience…the western intelligentsia and western-trained intellectuals from other cultures. It is they who claim that religion is a cultural universal and it is they who come with arguments and proofs. If my ideas bear up to scrutiny, most of the ‘competent and reasonable’ people from cultures other than the West cannot make much sense of the pronouncements of this smaller group.

Indeed, it seems that Dr. Balagangadhara may have discovered the principal reason for the heated and aggressive responses to the works of various scholars, and the anger and hurt so many seem to feel. Intellectual, emotional, cultural and philosophical incomprehension can be a very good basis for suspicion, fear, anger and resentment.

Comments are closed.