Portrayal of Hinduism by White American Scholars


Prof. Makkhan Lal


Some of us may be aware about the great up-roar in the USA about the depiction of Hinduism in prescribed textbooks in various states of USA about four years back.  The point that was made is that the ideas which formed the keystone of moral realisation offered by the British for colonialism and exploitation continue to enjoy wide academic respectability in the West including USA even today. What has changed over a period of time is the intellectual jargon that clothes these analyses. The image of India and the Indian religions and society is portrayed in most abhoring and despicable manner. These images of India about its culture and civilisation are produced, sustained and propagated not only by the journalists, TV producers, religious bigots or individual researchers suffering from personal biases and prejudices of but also by the entrenched institutionalised mechanism. Starting in well-respected, ostensibly ‘research-based’ but culturally parochial, halls of American and Western academe, these images filter down into mainstream Western culture where they acquire an incredible force in shaping how India is seen. With some variations, the portrayals of India have the features, familiar to us from Western media and colonial and missionary literature.  Indian culture is defined by a series of abuses, such as caste, sati, dowry murders, violence, religious conflict, grotesque deities and so on.


The scholars well entrenched in such academic institutions as Harvard, Chicago, Stanford etc. and associated with the American Academy, especially the powerful American Academy of Religion (AAR)1, like to imagine and portray India and Hinduism generally negative, chaotic and backward and everything that is bad in India is because of Hinduism. The AAR is the primary organisation for academic scholars of Religious Studies in the United States.  Religion in South Asia (RISA) is a unit within the AAR for scholars who study and teach about religion(s) in the Indian subcontinent.  As with any large academic field, Religious Studies in the US is highly organised and features prestigious journals, academic chairs, and planned and extensive programmes of study.


How Hinduism is studied, portrayed and finally brought to the domain of general public and school textbooks is being illustrated below by a few examples. Most of these studies have been done at the high portals of US Academia and also done in the name of psychoanalysis of the Hinduism. They do not, rather dare not, carryout the any such  psychoanalysis with other religions in the world. The reasons for this are best known not only to them but we can also guess reasonably accurately. They do not have the courage, even in the name of academic freedom and research freedom, to face a charge of sacrilege, blasphemy or even a fatwa. There is no such threat with Hinduism.  


Ramakrishna Paramhansa a Pedophile and Homosexual


Under the guidance of Wendy Doniger2, Jeffery Kripal3 did his Ph.D. dissertation on Ramakrishna Paramahansa. During his research, Mr. Kripal visited the Ramakrishna Missions in West Bengal. Several people at various offices of Ramakrishna Mission enthusiastically helped him during his research. They hardly knew what Kripal is up to. Kripal’s book, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and teaching of Ramakrishna, has been acclaimed as a great research book and won the First Book Award from AAR, where Prof. Wendy Doniger and her colleagues hold not only powerful positions but virtually veto powers when it comes to South Asian studies on religions. The Encyclopedia Britannica listed Kripal’s book as its top choice for learning about Ramakrishna Paramhansa.


Mr. Jeffery Kripal’s work hinges on his translation of an old Bengali text along with the application of Freudian psychology. As can be seen subsequently in the text, much of his thesis is based on incorrect translation of Bengali writings about the life of Ramakrishna and indeed his complete ignorance of the Bengali language, its nuances and culture. Yet, the accuracy of translation was considered to be a defining aspect of this ‘prize-worthy’ research book! It is difficult to imagine that such a Ph.D. dissertation, if it were based on sources in Aramaic or Hebrew or Arabic, would emerge full blown in the field of Biblical studies or Quranic studies without an independent and thorough cross-checking.


Let us see what Jeffery Kripal writes about Ramakrishna on the basis of his psychoanalytical researches. Note the italicized words (emphasis added by the writer of this article) within the quotations:





Thus, Kripal denies any experience of trance, samadhi etc. by Paramhansa and reduces the whole thing to Paramhansa’s sexual abuse during his childhood.  However, Swami Tyagananda points out that “None of the symptoms enumerated in the literature on sexual trauma [quoted by Kripal] is present in Ramakrishna’s life”.8









Blood Thirsty Tongue and Self-Feeding Breasts


Sarah Caldwell is another illustrious member of RISA and, like Jeffery Kripal, has been bestowed with awards for one of her research papers: ‘The Blood Thirsty Tongue and the Self-Feeding Breasts: Homosexual Fellatio Fantasy in a South Indian Ritual Tradition’. She writes:


“This essay demonstrates that in Kerala, symbolism of the fierce goddess [Kali] does not represent abreactions of the primal scene fantasies of a Kleinian ‘phallic mother’ or introjection of the father’s penis; rather, we will show that themes of eroticism and aggression in the mythology are male transsexual fantasies reflecting intense pre-Oedipal fixation on the mother’s body and expressing conflicts over primary feminine identity.15


“The essential rituals of the Bhagavati cult all point to the aggressive and fatal erotic drinking of the male by the female, the infamous orgy of blood sacrifice of male ‘cocks’ at the Kodungallur Bhagavati temple; the male veliccappatu’s cutting of his head in a symbolic act of self castration... [Kali] is herself, first of all, a phallic being, the mother with a penis... she is the bloodied image of the castrating and menstruating {thus castrating} female... In this type of analysis the phallic abilities of the goddess disguise castration anxieties ultimately directed toward the father as well as homosexual desire for the father’s penis. Following Freud, such analyses stress the father-son polarity of the Oedipal conflict as the central trauma seeking expression.16


“As Alter and O’Flaherty amply demonstrate, milk and breast-feeding are also symbolically transformed in the male imagination into semen and phallus... The ascetic male who retains the semen becomes like a pregnant female with breasts and swollen belly; the semen rises like cream to his head and produces extraordinary psychic powers... Not only are the fluids of milk and semen, symbolic equivalents, but the act of ‘milking’ or breastfeeding becomes a symbolic equivalent to the draining of semen from the phallus in intercourse.”17


Caldwell uses the English word ‘cock’ for the rooster (a male domestic fowl) so as to link the ritual with the phallus. The use of word ‘cock’ in place of rooster or male domestic fowl is clear example of how her psychological predispositions enter into a supposedly ‘scholarly’ interpretation. So she goes so far as to put quotation marks around the word ‘cock’ (meaning a rooster as well as penis) in order to emphasise the double meaning that she is aware of but not the locals. In other words, this is a projection of scholars. Further “essentially, this shows the importance of psycho-analysing these scholars in order to evaluate their work.”18



Abusing Ganesa, Siva and Parvati


Lord Ganesa has been the target of Mr. Paul Countright’s psychoanalysis in his book: Ganesa: Lord of obstacles, Lord of Beginning. The book even transcends the line of academic language. Given below is an example of his pornographic interpretive description of Siva, Ganesa and Parvati:


“[F]rom a psychoanalytic perspective, there is meaning in the selection of the elephant head. Its 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.... 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 ‘hard’, erotic, and destructive.19


“[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.20


Ganesa is like a eunuch guarding the women of the harem. In Indian folklore and practice, eunuchs have served as trusted guardians of the antahpura, the seraglio. They have the reputation of being homosexuals, with a penchant for oral sex, and are looked upon as the very dregs of society.... Like the eunuch, Ganesa has the power to bless and curse; that is, to place and remove obstacles. Although there seem 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. Ganesa’s broken tusk, his guardian staff, and displaced head can be interpreted as symbols of castration... This combination of child-ascetic-eunuch in the symbolism of Ganesa – each an explicit denial of adult male sexuality – appears to embody a primal Indian male longing to remain close to the mother and to do so in a way that will both protect her and yet be acceptable to the father. This means that the son must retain access to the mother but not attempt to possess her sexually.21


These bizarre interpretations, wholly manufactured by Courtright, are far outside the tradition and even worse, they caricature and ridicule Hinduism. Because Courtright was confident that he would not be held accountable by peers or even by the follower of Hinduism for manufacturing offensive images about a revered deity of Hinduism, he could candidly admit that he has no evidence for what he says, and then proceed to pronounce his flights of fancy as valid and scholarly interpretations. In other instances, evidence is invented from non-existent textual sources. Such books are not presented as fiction, or even acknowledged as parochial, limited interpretations – they are received by the academy as authoritative scholarly works. They then percolate into the mainstream culture via textbooks, media images, and explanations of Ganesa in American art museums.


In an introductory textbook on Eastern religions that is used extensively in undergraduate courses on ‘World Religions and Asian Studies, Awakening: An Introduction to the History of Eastern Thought’, Dr. Patrick Bresnan writes ‘authoritatively’ about Siva. Note that the sensationalistic prose and imagery he employs has now become a commonly accepted depiction of Siva in US academic circles:


“Entering the world of Siva worship is to enter the world of India at its most awesomely mysterious and bewildering; at least for the non-Indian. In Shiva worship, the Indian creative imagination erupts in a never-ending multiplicity of gods and demons, occult rituals, and stunning sexual symbolism... Linga/yoni veneration was not the whole of it... Young women, known as devadasis, were commonly connected with Shiva temples, and participated in, the rituals, sometimes only in a symbolic fashion; sometimes not. In a degraded form the devadasi became nothing more than temple prostitutes. These extremes were more often to be found among the practitioners of Tantra, that enigmatic antithesis of conservative Hinduism that developed in northeastern India. Some Tantra temples became notorious for all kinds of extreme practices, including ritual rape and ritual murder. In Calcutta, at the Temple of Durga (one of the forms of Shiva’s shakti) there was an annual festival at which many pigs, goats, sheep, fowl, and even water buffaloes would be slaughtered and ritually burned before the statue of the goddess.”22



Consider following statements in various books about Ganesa, Siva and Parvati:








This sensationalised, extreme story of rape and murder at Siva temples is described in an introductory textbook meant for common use. This is disturbingly problematic, especially for Hindu minorities around the world.  Let us reverse the situation to make the point. A hypothetical book informs its readers about the historically frequent occurrences of sex, rape and unwanted pregnancies in nunneries or recently exposed epidemic of pedophilia among catholic priests and evangelical ministers.


If one were to write, mimicking Doniger’s approach and evidence similar to Courtright’s but applying it in the reverse direction to interpret Christian symbols and narratives this is what would be the description:


“Jesus was a filthy and indecent man. He learned some magic tricks from the visiting Persian merchants. The Romans often invited him to perform at their parties, and in exchange, they offered him wine. So he routinely got drunk, tried to be ‘a notorious womanizer’, and was a hobo all his life. Since Jesus’ mother was a prostitute, she did not want to announce the true identity of his father, and had to make up a story for the illiterate nomads. Therefore, Mary claimed that Jesus was born without physical intercourse. So all his life, Jesus guarded the myth of his mother’s virginity and hid the immoral activities of his father and other customers who visited her for sex. The Roman commander played a joke upon Jesus by crucifying him using the cross, symbolizing that the cross was the phallus which his mother must have used for his conception. Thus, his followers today carry a cross as the phallic symbol of his immaculate conception.”


One may now legitimately ask, “How would the above be considered if it were written by a non-Christian academic scholar in a country where Christianity is a small minority – just as Hinduism is a small minority in the US?”


Books on general studies on religions will not include statements mimicked above or such as the one below:


“Being the bride of Christ and crucifix-veneration was not the whole of it. In a degraded form, the nuns who were ‘married’ off to Jesus were little more than church prostitutes, available to the powerful among the priesthood as well as laity”.


Nor would one approve a statement like:


“Catholic churches are notorious for all kinds of extreme practices from rape of children to official protection for the rapist over decades”.


Indeed, such statement could be backed by enormous amount of data. For instance, in the US alone, hundreds of Christian priests have been implicated for the molestation of children. Of the nearly 200 dioceses in the country, every single one ‘except a handful’ has reported many such incidents. The victims are in thousands and the problem goes back to at least half-a-century.28


Since cannibalism does occur occasionally in Western societies, another equivalent scenario would be a textbook statement such as:


“Young Christian men and women are taught at an early age that eating flesh and drinking blood of godman Jesus is a good thing. They regularly participate in rituals where human flesh and blood are consumed, sometimes symbolically, sometimes not”. 


The academic world is flooded with books and so-called research monographs by American scholars, especially from Chicago and Harvard Universities. No Hindu gods and goddesses are spared.  The language, the contents, and indeed the graphic descriptions, leaves one wondering whether he is reading a book on religion, mythology and about gods and goddesses or pornography wherein each and every object, each and every word, and in each and every description, the only thing visible is sex, sex, sex and more sex in all its manifestations possible through imagination. Not that there is no criticism on the issue in the academic world, but the defence of such gutter literature is much more vociferous, shrill and strong in the name of what they called peer reviews.




Not that there is no protest against such writings. The fact that a large number of Western and American scholars as well as people joined the issue with the diaspora shows the importance attached to the matter. Commenting upon Paul Courtright’s work and approach on Ganesa, Prof. Antonio de Nicolas says:


“The first responsibility of a scholar in describing, writing, speaking, teaching other cultures is to present those cultures or the elements of those cultures in the same manner those cultures are viewed by themselves, and by the people of those cultures. If not, then the scholars in using those cultures in the name only and his goal in their destruction, if not in intention at least in fact. ‘The flaccid phallus of Ganesa’ is an invention of author… A author who does not know how to present cultures by their own criteria should not be allowed to teach those cultures. His freedom of speech is not guaranteed by his ignorance. Freedom stops here. Opinions are not the food of the classroom at the hands of Professors. They guarantee knowledge.”29


Prof. de Nicolas turns the mirror towards Paul Courtright and asks:


“Would Dr. Courtright like to open a door to the enemies, or outsiders, of Christianity to do the same with Bible for example? Would he or others find it offensive if a Hindu scholars with full credentials and knowledge described the creation myth of the Bible as an absurd and gross sexual representation? For one thing Freud would not be needed. The Bible is very explicit. The creation myth (history) says very clearly that the Creator created the world by ejecting his seven ruh (pronounced as ruah) and mingling it with waters. In other words, the Creator created through masturbation. And if you stretch the story all the way to Jesus and follow the patrilineal lines given to him, turns out that Yahweh is his father.


“Can you be more gross? And would any Ph.D. in religion be able to answer this attack? You see a Pandora’s Box is let open to inflict enormous pain on believers. Why not see the same pain on Hindus when their Gods are attacked? We are talking about interpretations not realities!!! All stories about gods are bad stories.”30


The net results and impacts of works like those of Wendy Doniger, Jeffery Kripal, Paul Courtright and Sarah Coldwell on the people and society have been best summarised by Prof. Jeffery D. Long of Department of Religious Studies, Elizabethantown College.  He laments:


“Indeed hateful speech and false information can create a climate in which violence is to the expected… So how long will it be before a crazed gunman attack crowded Hindu temple in American believing… that Hindus are possibly demons?  How any children will grow up believing Hinduism is ‘filthy’ religion, or that Hindus worship the devil? When they grow up, how will such children treat then Hindu co-workers and neighbours. Will they give them respect due to a fellow citizen and human being?”30


But there has been virtually no protest from Indian academia. It has behaved in most cowardice and impotent manner. In fact, Indians themselves have contributed to the problem in significant ways. While American universities have major programmes for studying world religions and cultures, Indian universities do not offer similar programmes and provide the intellectual inputs to the world.  Indeed, the discipline of Religious Studies does not even exist in most universities in India due to the particular myth that positive knowledge about, and intellectual involvement with, religion breeds communalism.  Many Americans are shocked to learn that there is a deep prejudice among India’s intellectually colonised intelligentsia, according to which secularism implies the exclusion from, or even condemnation of Indic religions in, civic society – which is exact opposite of the respectful place given by American secular civic society to its majority Judeo-Christian traditions. 


Unlike all other major world religions, Hinduism does not have its own home team, by which we mean a combined group of academic scholars who are both practitioners of the faith and well-respected in the academia at the highest levels.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism each have their respective home teams in the academics – in fact, multiple homes representing different denominations of these religions. Even China has recently established numerous well-funded Confucius institutes around the world that teach Chinese civilisational approaches to human issues on par with western models.


However India’s case and responsibility of Indian academia and universities does not end here. Even the departments (like Sanskrit, Archaeology, History, Culture, Philosophy etc.) where religious studies could be undertaken have not fulfilled their obligations to the nation and its people. The reason for this apathy/failure/willful negligence is best illustrated by Prof. Dilip Chakrabarti, who observes how the West has bred and bought off a whole generation of elitist Indians, and how this axis operates:


“After Independence ... [Indians] – especially those from the ‘established’ families – were no longer apprehensive of choosing History as an academic career... To join the mainstream, the historians could do a number of things: expound the ruling political philosophy of the day, develop the art of sycophancy to near-perfection or develop contacts with the elite in bureaucracy, army, politics and business. If one had already belonged to this elite by virtue of birth, so much the better. For the truly successful in this endeavour, the rewards were many, one of them being the easy availability of ‘foreign’ scholarships/fellowships, grants, etc. not merely for themselves but also for their proteges and the progeny. On the other hand, with the emergence of some specialist centers in the field of South Asian social sciences in ‘foreign’ universities, there was no lack of people with different kinds of academic and not-so-academic interest in South Asian history in those places too. The more clever and successful of them soon developed a tacit patron-client relationship with their Indian counterparts, at least in the major Indian universities and other centers of learning. In some cases, ‘institutes’ or ‘cultural centers’ of foreign agencies were set up in Indian metropolises themselves, drawing a large crowd of Indians in search of short-term grants or fellowships, invitations to conferences or even plain free drinks.”32




1. The AAR traces its origin back to 1909 when an organisation was formed for Professors and scholars of Biblican Studies whose ‘purpose was to stimulate scholarship and teaching in [Christian] religion’.  In 1922, the name was changed to National Association of Biblican Institutions (NABI). Thus, its early history was clearly Bible-centric. In 1963, stimulated by the ‘change in the study of religion, NABI became the American Academy of Religion (AAR). The AAR ‘has over 8,000 members who teach in some 1,500 colleges, universities, seminaries and schools in North America and abroad’ Since its inception, the Religious Studies organisations that evolved into AAR have maintained close relations with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), founded in 1880.  For many decades, the two have held their conferences jointly. While SBL members primarily study and promote insiders’ views of Judeo-Christianity, the AAR members are not supposed to promote any particular viewpoint, and are required instead to pursue study of religions through a neutral lens. The stated mission of AAR is to promote objectivity from within, or outside of, any particular religious tradition. With a growing membership, the AAR has developed an enormous clout over the direction of Religious Studies in particular and the humanities at large.


2. Prof. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty is Mircea Eliade Professor of History and Religion at the University of Chicago. She wields considerable influence in the study of Hinduism and is a high-profile scholar in the field. She is former president of American Academy of Religion (AAR) and a past president of Association of Asian Studies (AAR).  Doniger’s writings and her knowledge of Sanskrit have been questioned time and again by scholars. Even her fellow travelers like Michael Witzel from the Harvard University have exposed her lack of even elementary knowledge of Sanskrit language and Hinduism. She has been even accused of plagiarising eminent scholars. About her academic approach, Nicholas Kazanas, an eminent European Ideologist, examined Doniger’s obsession with sexual connotations. Referring to her book, Women Androgynes and other Mythical Beasts, Prof. Nicholas Khazans writes that she is obsessed with only one meaning – the most sexual imaginable: “O’Flaherty [a.k.a. Doniger] seems to see only one function… of fertility and sexuality, copulation, defloration, castration and the like: even bhakti ‘devotion’ is described in stark erotic terms including  incest and  homo sexuality.”

Doniger is known for her racy, bawdy and notorious interpretation of Hindu texts.  A BBC-linked website describes her as follows: “Prof. Wendy Doniger is known for being rude, crude and lewd in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit academics. All her special works have revolved around the subject of sex in Sanskrit text.”


3.  Jeffery Kripal, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teaching of Ramakrishna, 2nd Ed. pp. 2-3

4.  Ibid, pp. 28-29

5.  Swami Tyagananda, ‘Kali’s Child Revisited’ Evam:Forum on Indian epresentations-I, Nos. 1-2(2002): pp. 173-90.

6.  Jeffery Kripal, Kali’s Child, pp. 4-5.

7.  Ibid, Pp. 298-99.

8.  Swami Tyagananda, ‘Kali’s Child Revisisted’, p. 184.

9.  Jeffery Kripal, Kali’s Child, p. 2.

10. Jeffery Kripal, Kali’s Child, p. 76.

11. Ibid, p. 301

12. Ibid, p. 66

13. Ibid, p. 160

14. Ibid, pp. XXI, XXII

15. Sarah Caldwell, ‘The Bloodthirsty Tongue and the Self-Feeding Breasts: Homosexual Fellatio Fantasy in South Indian Ritual Tradition’, In Vishnu on Freud’s Desk, Eds. T.G. Vaidyanathan and Jeffery Kripal. p. 333

16. Ibid, p. 343

17. Ibid, p. 350

18. Rajiv Malhotra in RISA Lila 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrom.

19. Paul Courtright, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginning, p. 121.

20. Ibid, p. 110

21. Ibid, p. 111

22. Patrick Besnon, Awakening:  An Introduction to History of Western Thought, pp. 98-101.

23. Philip Spratt, Hindu Culture and Personality, pp. 126 & 186.

24. R.P. Goldman, 1978 ‘Fathers, Son, Gurus Oedipal conflict in Sanskrit Epics”. Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 6, pp. 371-72

25. Paul Courtright, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginning, p. 117.

26. G. Obeyesekere, The Cult of Goddess Patni, p. 471.

27. Paul Countright, Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginning, p. 95

28. See website run and maintained by former victims of Church at: http://bisop-accountablity.org/pristdb/pristdbbydiocese.html

29. Invading the Sacred, p. 285

30. Ibid. p. 287

31. Ibid. p. 1

32. D.K. Chakrabarti, Colonial Indology-Sociopolitic, pp. 6-7