Hot, Bothered, and Devout: The Religious Policing of Sex

Yesterday, I posted a review essay on a pair of books by SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra that critique the field of “Indian studies.” In my essay I attempted to place into some context the recent controversy over the recall from circulation of Wendy Doniger‘s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Amongst the many charges leveled at Doniger’s writing is that she has “hurt” the sensibilities of devout Hindus. This accusation is often made against many modern scholars of Hinduism; Balagangadhara and Malhotra are part of this chorus. Thus, in my essay I noted the former’s critique of Jeffrey Kripal and Paul Courtright‘s  psychoanalytical takes on the mysticism of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the legend of Ganesha and his conclusion that Kripal and Courtright were “indulging in mischief” and doing “violence” to “the experiential world of the Hindus.” Malhotra, of course, has been vigorously accusing Doniger of a variety of sins: her treatment of sexuality and sexual themes is one of them.

So, rather unsurprisingly, a centerpiece of these critiques is the offense caused to religious sensibilities by that which is supposed remain between the sheets.

I think we are entitled to be suspicious that whenever Hindus—in India, or elsewhere— or other devout folks–all over the world–get offended by academic or cultural responses to their religion, it invariably has something to do with sex, the one business that gets everyone hot and bothered under their cassocks and lungis. Reading Balagangadhara’s language of “violence” against Hindus, one would imagine the darkest depths of anti-Hindu sentiment had been plumbed. Rather disappointingly instead, it turns out Hindus are like religious prudes everywhere: sex and their gods or their saints do not go together; they are chaste, virtuous, asexual creatures. What a letdown for the civilization that gave us Khajuraho.

By saying this, I do not mean to diminish the ascetic strains in Hinduism—like those pointed to, ironically enough, by Wendy Doniger—but rather to combat the impulses present in the responses to the scholarship of Kripal and Courtright that seek to cover up the erotic and sexual strains in Indian culture at large. Such stereotypical and clichéd outraged responses are, after all, not even in accord with Indian cultural mores. Risqué versions of tales taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata often make the rounds in India; there are too, among the young ‘uns, dirty ditties galore about its characters to be sung out loudly and coarsely. Those who sing them, and tell lewd jokes by the dozen about characters from the great Hindu epics, don’t seem to be hurt by their activities.

Balagangadhara and Malhotra owe us an explanation of why so many Indians do not seem perennially offended by such practices. Could it be the vaunted Hindu tolerance and syncretism—spoken so glowingly of by Malhotra—is found here in the implicit understanding that powerful cultural and mythological imaginaries are unlikely to be diminished by a few academic theses? Intolerant reactions do not sit well with the picture these two worthies paint for us of an endlessly patient and resilient tradition.

Unsurprisingly, Balagangadhara and Malhotra, and their fellow “outraged”, claim to speak for too many, and seek to control discourse. Some things never change. For all the exalted theistic conceptions that the supposedly devout seek to foist on us, they descend all too quickly from the sublime to the sordid, from lofty metaphysical conceptions to just good old scoldings about dirty talk. There is nothing new in this outrage; just a tired old policing of sex.

SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra on Reversing the Gaze

On 12 February, Penguin India announced it was withdrawing and destroying—in India—all published copies of historian Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). Penguin’s decision came after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which, in 2011, had filed a legal complaint objecting to sections of Doniger’s book. Amidst the vocal expressions of concern over the damage done to free speech and academic freedom in India were also thinly-veiled suggestions that justice had been done, that the right outcome—the suppression and quelling of an academic work that supposedly offended Hindu sensibilities—had been reached. A prominent voice in this choir was of one Rajiv Malhotra, who noted on his Twitter account that Doniger was merely the ”idol of inferiority complex Indians [sic] in awe that white person studies Hinduism,” that Penguin’s withdrawal of her work was justified in a world in which “media bias” in an “intellectual kurukshetra [sic]” had led to a “a retail channel controlled by one side.”   

This dispute over Wendy Doniger’s work is merely the latest instance of a long-running contestation of how best to study India and all things Indian.

Continue reading

A Puzzle about Karmic Doctrine – Contd.

Reader theendlessknot3d writes in with an interesting comment to yesterday’s post on the doctrine of karma as explicated by Daya Krishna:

You say that karma is working, in the case of B, to bring retribution for a past action, Y, which B had previously inflicted on another, and that A is therefore potentially free of guilt/responsibility for having spilled the hot water on B. A would just be the agent who is ‘used’ by karma to bring about this retribution. But I think the paradox of such a situation is pretty clear: that there is really no such thing as freedom in action, despite the appearance of free will which we would all intuitively think exists. It’s an unfree freedom, since karma informs or utilizes our motivations to bring about the actions which we otherwise think we are freely performing.

But I’d probably say that karma isn’t only being exercised against B through A’s act of spilling the cup, because we know that A deliberately chose to do it. I’d think that, if karma is a true description of agency, there would be a potential argument of infinite regression, since B’s act in his previous or present life also wouldn’t strictly speaking be his act; it’d be another act of retribution directed at some third agent, C, which was caused by C’s act of Z-ing. So it seems that there isn’t a way out of this circular argument with its intrinsic paradox unless we either at least admit to a rendition of the theory of compatiblism or reject the theory of karma outright.

Both these points are useful in that they illuminate the puzzle I was raising. I think there is another facet to the doctrine of karma that arises when you consider that in my original post, I had relied on a too-neat slicing up of events, their causes and effects.

To see this consider that in the original example, A‘s action does not have one effect alone; it has several. It hurts B, but it also spills water on the floor, wets B‘s clothes, perhaps breaks a glass and so on. These effects may in turn impinge on other agents; again, in each case, these accrue because of the affected agents’ pasts. So A‘s actions are not determined by B alone but by a much larger assemblage. Similarly, A‘s action is not the cause of B‘s injuries; it is one of the events–the availability of hot water, fuel for its heating, a glass to hold it in, and so on–that may be causally implicated.  Each of those events’ effects contribute to B‘s injuries; each of them is due to B‘s actions in the past. In ascribing responsibility to A we rely on some ends to guide us: perhaps our society is interested in assigning tort liability and individual actors are the most appropriate loci of causal influence for it. But the presence of the other events  implicated in B‘s injuries means that the deserts for B’s actions flow through multiple channels.

These points do not affect the ones made by theendlessknot3d above; the puzzles of responsibility and free will noted there still stand.

Daya Krishna on the Doctrine of Karma: A Puzzle

During the course of a series of lectures delivered at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 2005–in an attempt to explicate what he saw as one of the primary distinctions between the ‘Western’ and the ‘Indian’ conceptions of the relationship of the individual to society–Daya Krishna noted:

The idea that one may be responsible for actions that have not been taken by one’s own self and that one may be redeemed by someone else’s action [as man’s by Christ] may seem positively outrageous to a sensibility that treats the individual as essentially apart for his relationships with others, relationships in which he may happen to be accidentally involved. The doctrine of karma in traditional Hindu thought primarily reflects this basic presupposition that it would be an immoral world indeed if one were to reap the fruits of someone else’s actions. The monadic morality of the Hindu is thus conceived of in an essentially asocial manner. It does not derive from an other-centered consciousness in which the consequences of one’s actions on others are the subject of one’s focus of attention. Rather, it is the consequences of one’s actions upon oneself which provides the main ground for morality in Hindu thought and thus paves the way for a very different kind of perspective on the entire issue of action and one’s relations with others. At the deepest level, not merely does what one does have consequences upon oneself but, conversely whatever happens to one could only be the result of one’s own actions. Thus, not only do one’s own actions have consequences on oneself, but also, if the world is to be a moral world, nothing else could. [Civilizations: Nostalgia and Utopia, Sage Publications, 2012, pp. 13-14]

This explication of the doctrine of karma raises, I think, a pair of vexing questions.

To see this, consider some actor A that takes action X. The consequences of X can only accrue to A. But Y may have–visibly, in this world–effects that impinge on another being B. For instance, I may tip a cup of hot water–as a cruel joke–on a waiter at a restaurant. According to Krishna, what has happened to B–the waiter–is a consequence of B‘s actions, perhaps in a past life, perhaps in the present one. But A is the actor, the agent, that brought about those effects on B, so are the causes of A‘s actions B‘s actions?

Furthermore, actions are, I presume, within the karmic doctrine, reckoned as good or bad, moral or immoral, a calculus which then plays out in the effects that will take place in the future on their actor. A‘s action X of tipping a glass of hot water–purely for jest–on a waiter is, let’s say, an immoral one: it is gratuitously cruel. A has then presumably accrued a ‘negative credit’ of sorts in the karmic ledger, one which will presumably result in some negative effect on A in the future–again, either in this life, or in some future one. But will A then be chastised for an action, X, that was the result of B‘s actions?

I hope the puzzles of responsibility and action that I had in mind are visible. I welcome clarification if I’ve misunderstood Krishna in any way. (Perhaps Y‘s effects on B are only apparent etc.)