Respecting the elephant

I would not go so far as some who would insist that a Hindu is not the person to ask about Hinduism, as Harvard professor Roman Jakobson notoriously objected to Nabokov's bid for chairmanship of the Russian literature department: "I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of zoology?"

That is from Wendy Doniger's new and noteworthy The Hindus: An Alternative History.  Here is a favorable Michael Dirda review of the book.  Read the Wikipedia section on "Criticism" of Wendy Doniger, some of it from fundamentalist Hindus.  Here is a defense of Doniger.


Everything else equal, I would think that a history written by a _disinterested_ nonbeliever would be more objective and insightful. However, believers are the people most likely to log the time and energy necessary to be experts, so a trade off may exist. Certainly theology from a nonbeliever's perspective (for any religion) is the best way to sort out the beliefs of a religion, as a faith-based perspective is often very confusing to me.

Heres the problem. Is the study of Hinduism a branch of Philosophy/Theology or is it a branch of Ethnic studies? In American universities we have African-American studies, Chicano studies, Arabic studies, Queer studies,Womens studies etc. all of which function as much as cheerleaders for their respective denominations as scholarly investigations. American Hindus wonder why Hindu studies isn't telling students why we're better than white men.

As for Doniger. she notoriously said during the last election “[Palin's] greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman.† Uh, what??? I think it is safe to say she has some issues with regards to sexuality.

Hmmm . . . Dirda praises Doniger's work as much for her "hip funky feistiness" as for her prowess as an able translator (I certainly couldn't attest one way or the other, but an ostensibly well-informed professor at one university she graduated from finds her translations deficient). For his part, Marty's defense is a considerate collegial testimonial to Professor Doniger but also fails to speak directly to the soundness of her scholarship (UC religion professors may still be sensitized owing to the on-campus murder of Professor I. P. Couliano in May 1991).

How sound are standards for scholarship in any domain these days? Just yesterday, I got around to beginning Eric Voegelin's treatment of Giambattista Vico (History of Political Ideas, vol. VI), and Professor Voegelin (who gives every evidence of having been a conscientious scholar) seems to note judiciously and aptly that Croce and Gentile misappropriated Vico's work (thereby succumbing to Vico's diagnosed "boria dei dotti"--"conceit of scholars", and here especially, of historians who fail to understand how distortions of history manifest themselves).

"Objective scholarship"? "Private commitment"? Skepticism of skepticism? Curiouser and curiouser . . . .

Make sure then that Professors of African-American studies are all white then, and all Women's Studies professors male. Blacks and women couldn't be objective about these topics you know.

If Doniger wrote about Christians and their religion, I'm pretty sure she'd find a way to see the cross as a phallic symbol and tie the virgin birth to a sexual orgy.

Gandhi was wrong - Doniger's is the true “drain inspector’s report†.

I am not a Hindu but I live in a country which has its root deeply related to Hinduism. Since I am not a Hindu myself, I am perhaps not qualified enough to give a verdict on Wendy Doniger or her critics. The only thing I can say confidently is that in Ancient South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan), there was a lot of space for different religious and philosophical ideas to coexist peacefully. Thus, Wendy Doniger can become more appreciative of Hinduism and its history. On the other hand, her Hindu critics should remember the tradition of tolerance and freedom of ideas that Ancient India had. Perhaps, we need a modern Buddha to guide these two groups.

You link to a favorable review from Michael Dirda of the Washington Post. And Wendy Doniger is a panelist for the On Faith section of the Washington Post.

Doniger's faculty page at the Chicago Divinity School clearly states that "Wendy Doniger's blog On Faith is at"

It looks like she started blogging for the Post on Jan 9th. Dirda's review is dated Mar 19th. Yet I can't find any mention in Dirda's review that Doniger blogs for the Post.

I find the whole thing a little bit, well, incestuous.

It is understandable that Professors Witzel and Doniger would differ drastically on some translations. Sanskrit, like most other languages, has changed a lot across centuries ( an illuminating but imperfect analogy would be the difference between Canterbury tales and modern English ).

So to figure out the meaning of a particular word from an ancient text, an "academically rigorous" consideration would take into account similar usages from the same or similar historical contexts, etymological considerations, opinions of ancient/medieval commentators ( of widely varying degrees of reliability ) as well as general knowledge about the civilization ( this last one is a bit nontrivial - e.g. Prof. Witzel claims that the word "samudra" in Rig Veda does not mean ocean, though in classical Sanskrit it does; he insists that Vedic people could not have known ocean ).

In any case, while differences of this sort are understandable, it is inexcusable that the academic community hasn't defined even semi-precise norms for "academic rigor". For instance, though you may differ with a certain economist K, you would always take care to specify the exact point of divergence and recognize that modulo certain assumptions K's work is sound. Nothing of that sort is found among these folks. Prof. Witzel relentlessly snubs Prof. Doniger, for instance.

Professor Doniger has obviously read a lot, but doesn't seem particularly skilled in distinguishing between deductive reasoning and conspiracy theory. For instance she quotes a few verses from old sanskrit books and uses them to make general comments about "Hindu attitude to women" across centuries - applying them to modern Hindus without a trace of rigor :

Such writing doesn't seem like objective scholarship at all. A similar article on, say, "Koran and violence" wouldn't be received the same way ( and rightly so ).

BTW given that the elephant analogy is patently ludicrous, why does she have to say "I wouldn't go so far as to subscribe to it"?

Wow...Really? Who better to ask about a certain faith than someone in the faith. Sorry if I'm being a little bland in my comment but, of course you wouldn't give an elephant the chair of zoology. Elephants aren't people. In my views of nature in general, animals are doing 1 of 4 things at all times: eating, sleeping, fertilizing, or protecting (either their self or their young).
Who would know better about being a Hindu? Someone who has put their life into it, or someone who has put their life into studying people who put their life into it? That was a mouthful. Having faith is a lot different than knowing what faith is.

Tracy W., let's apply your logic to Women's studies and African-American studies too, just like Brock at Apr 10, 2009 11:58:19 AM suggested, and not have any women or black scholars (respectively) study these subjects, because these people are going to be rather biased on the topic and unlikely to give us a warts-and-all look at it. Agreed?

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