Studying Religion
in an Age of Terror
Internet death threats and scholarship
as a moral practice

Paul Courtright, Professor of Religion


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Editor’s 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.

These 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 us.