Note: In 2001, the Delhi-based Motilal Banarsidass Publishers re-released
Ganesa, Lord of Obstacles and Beginnings by Paul Courtright,
originally published by Oxford University Press in 1985. The reprint
cover features the elephant god Ganesa as a toddler in a crawling
position, sans clothing. That image, along with a brief, psychoanalytically
informed reading of part of the myth that recounts Ganesa’s
beheading (by his divine father, who fails to recognize Ganesa as
he guards his mother’s bath), angered some Hindus in the United
States. They claimed Courtright had “offended” their
god. An Internet petition gathered over four thousand signatures,
threatened him personally, and pressured his publisher in India
to withdraw the book.
are increasingly dangerous times for scholars who study India. Well-financed
and organized groups on the political and religious right want to
control the memory of India’s past in ways that suit their
own ideological agendas. Consequentially, scholars within or outside
India who challenge those constructions become targets of attack.
My recent experience is not singular. Last December, another group
in India vandalized an institute, stole ancient manuscripts, and
physically assaulted a scholar who had worked with an American author
whose book on a seventeenth-century king offended them. A couple
of years before, a distinguished Indian historian was vilified for
writing a meticulously documented study of meat consumption among
Hindus in ancient India.
In one sense, this is an old story; scholars have been seen as suspect
by orthodoxies of one sort or another in many cultures. Scholars,
particularly those in the humanities, tend to engage in subversive
activity. To write is to resist the sloth of the familiar forms
of knowing and being in the world. And in one
way or another—to someone or another—this kind of critical
inquiry may give offense. These are the costs and consequences of
free inquiry. Along with this subversive element, scholarship also
carries an ascetic dimension, in that it sometimes requires a renunciation
of comfort—for the scholar and the reader—in service
to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
When the realm of inquiry is the academic study of religion, we
commit transgression in ways that are both the same as and different
from those of our colleagues in other fields. Some scholars of religion
have a foot in both academic and religious traditions, and their
forms of asceticism and subversion differ somewhat from mine, as
a visitor to the religious tradition I study. I have a great respect
for the tradition but am not responsible for defending its orthodoxies.
I speak about, with, and to Hindus—but certainly not for or
on behalf of Hindus.
So when someone says—or circulates an Internet petition or
complains to the president of my university— that “the
things you have written, and the theories you apply, offend me;
they offend my sentiment,” the first thing I have to say is
that I acknowledge that your experience is authentic for you. But
as a scholar and interpreter, my intent is not to demean, dismantle,
or offend. Rather, it is to explore, probe, and imagine, using whatever
approaches the content of the religious tradition and the tradition
of critical inquiry call upon—even drawing on forms of interpretation
that may not be indigenous to that tradition itself but may be illuminating
and novel. Religious stories and ideas are not private property.
They belong to the public domain. The same is true for interpretation.
In my case, my attackers have not engaged the argument of my book—its
intellectual substance—but have attacked me personally and
called for public censure of me by my university.
Today we find ourselves in an era when some readers will suspect
anything we do, especially as foreign scholars who are “outsiders”
to the tradition. Indian scholars, Hindu and non-Hindu, who are
familiar with my work appreciate the necessity of free inquiry,
not because they know me personally but because they know they could
be the next targets of self-appointed guardians of sentiment. The
integrity of what we do must be protected. As scholars we have to
own that integrity and do our work with as much clarity, resolve,
and compassion as we know how. When we are in error, we must own
our mistakes; when we are attacked because some don’t like
our interpretation, we must rededicate ourselves to our vocation
of critical inquiry.
Scholarly associations play a vital role here. Colleagues in my
own association, the American Academy of Religion, have been extraordinarily
supportive, in both the administrative leadership of the organization
and also in the scholarly conversations specific to my area of inquiry.
Universities rightly step in to protect their faculty from harassment.
What about students? Whenever scholars are attacked, we need to
inform our students in useful and appropriate ways. It’s a
way of letting them know that the pursuit of knowledge matters,
that scholarship may involve risks. Scholarship is a form of intellectual
practice, but on another level, it is a form
of moral practice. We have a duty to be accurate and put carefully
thought-out ideas into the conversation for critical appraisal by
our readers. Insofar as students can witness and participate in
that process, it helps them own the work that they do and supports
them in taking their own risks and engaging in critical inquiry.
When others try to silence us because they claim to take offense
and insist that their sentiments trump our pursuit of knowledge,
it reminds us that writing is often a practice of resistance. To
write is to write back, against those forces that would take away
power and agency from us. To retreat into silence is to give a victory
to the vigilantes. To remain silent is to abandon our students and
surrender ourselves to those who seek, through terror, to erase