An Uncomfortable Education

An Uncomfortable Education June 10, 2014

I’m exhausted. School is out and I have an infant and two kids all day, every day. I haven’t adjusted yet. I need more structure or the eldest child will be the death of us all. Last week was also my birthday, so there were a few fun birthday gatherings. Last week was also my blog post about Wendy Doniger’s controversial alternative history of the Hindus, and with that came all the comments. And those comments were intense. Processing those on top of everything else left me feeling very overwhelmed.

For a few days I felt a little crazy. To my eyes, it seemed like most of the commenters hadn’t read the book or my review. Why were they repeating the very same objections I had already disagreed with in my review? Worse, why was I starting to repeat myself? What was I missing? Why wasn’t I making sense to them? The worst part came when I found myself using phrases and arguments that have long been used against feminists – “It was humor! Maybe you just don’t have a sense of humor!” That’s when I realized I was completely unprepared to write that book review. I could read and have an opinion on the book, sure. But I didn’t understand the wider context – not the context of the author, nor of those offended. The handful of negative reviews I had read made sense to me, because the English language makes sense to me, but I didn’t appreciate their context.

It’s not that my review was totally off the mark. Many Hindus, much like the orthodox in other traditions, aren’t interested in the voices of those on the margins. Some of the objections in my comments sounded like they were repeating such objections. Doniger’s book was focused precisely on these voices from the margins of the Hindu spectrum. Some Hindus think this is a good thing, that the book “is not an insult to religion but a tribute to its complexity.” I agree that Doniger’s book is a good thing. It certainly fills in a lot of the missing pieces from the classes I took in college that covered India and Hinduism.

Some people object that Doniger’s ideas will be the ONLY ideas in its field. How silly, I thought. How could her ideas be assumed to be the only ideas? How could some one who writes about the fringe be taken for the mainstream? I disregarded these objections. However, I was wrong. After further research and discussion with a professor at a major university, I learned that right now Doniger is indeed the sole voice for Hinduism in the academy. This is extremely limiting! Of course there should be more voices! And yes, it would be great if more Hindus were in the field!

The issue of humor is interesting. I was appalled at how I became a type of “mansplainer,” basically telling people who didn’t find stuff funny that they didn’t understand American humor. Now, some of my commenters did not write in the most eloquent English, so maybe English isn’t their first language and maybe they didn’t get the puns and jokes with which Doniger peppered her book. And maybe they did and they still didn’t like it. All I can say, I feel dirty having told people I don’t know that they didn’t get the joke. That was gross of me.

However, a Hindu wrote about this issue and loved the humor. Whether or not people did or did not get the jokes, I was really uncomfortable being in the seat of the intellectual oppressor. That’s not a position I am in very often. In the past I have been the only woman in the room/class/discussion, the only non-Christian, the only liberal (or whathaveyou), and so on. I’m used to being the odd voice out. I’m not used to being the person in a position of power (other than when I have been a teacher, which is a different dynamic than being a white person arguing about Hinduism with Hindus). In this case I let my academic arrogance get in the way of listening and understanding.

It’s hard to understand one another when each party is speaking in different languages. All the dialog was in English, but we were not speaking the same language. It turns out that we may not have all been using the same words with the same meanings. This was another area that my scholar friend helped me understand. I had no idea how vastly different the understanding of scholarship in the field (or non-field) is in India. I knew that ‘Indology’ (the study of India in the West) and Hinduism are Western constructs. But I didn’t understand that the way we study religion and history over here is NOT the way it is done, approached, or thought of over there. Apples and oranges.

From a Western point of view, Doniger’s book is a great contribution to our understanding of Hinduism. I can’t speak to how accurate her Sanskrit or history details are. I cannot speak for any view point other than my own. This book will piss off any one who wants a monolithic Hindu agenda to push out already marginal voices. It will piss off any one who thinks that sacred things should only, ever be spoken of by people on the inside. I’m not in either of those groups.

But I’m certainly ignorant of what it means to be Hindu. For all of my sincerity to my Hindu practices, I am no Hindu. I’ve never claimed to be. But last week I saw the intensity of my white Western heritage in ways I never expected. It was a most uncomfortable education.



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  • Ambaa

    There was a great April Fool’s joke, I think it was scholastic. They posted an article whose headline was “Why don’t people read anymore?” and when you clicked on it, it went to a blurb saying that they suspected people were commenting on their articles after only seeing the headlines and never clicking through to read the article itself. Watching the angry and intense comments on FB where people defended how much they read, it was clear that they were right. A lot of times people respond to a blog post based on habit and personal vendettas and not at all on what is actually written there.

    • Deana

      That’s not really it, though. Her post specifically said, “I can understand why there are Hindus offended by this book, they don’t understand scholarship, and they’re missing the point.” and she went on to tell me several times that I just don’t understand how scholarship works. I was offended at this dismissal, to say the least. And then Jason’s first word to me ever in my life is “ugh!” and then to tell me that I”m wrong and there need to be diverse voices (which was my point; Doniger’s is the only voice). Sigh. I was so disappointed to see Pagans acting in this way when usually it’s the Pagans who are the voice of the oppressed, not the oppressors.

      • You should have been offended. It was offensive. You quote the very problematic sentence that I thought about changing later. What I meant was that the reviewers seemed not to understand how American scholarship works. Not all Hindus. And I didn’t understand that scholarship in both countries was so very very different. Mea culpa. I decided not to change the sentence because I think my mistakes should stand.

      • Ambaa

        I wasn’t meaning you in particular. I just meant that sometimes comments do happen that seem to not be at all aware of what’s been written!

  • 76 comments on your last post. That’s nothing. My Sarah Palin book review has over 500!

    • I know I’m small potatoes! You don’t need to rub it in. 😉

      • Henry Buchy

        heh, personally, you are one of the very few writers on this channel that I see as having any value. This post is an example of why.

  • Deana

    Here’s an analogy to take it out of the realm of Doniger’s book. Imagine Mickey Rooney’s character of I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Imagine saying, “I can understand why some Japanese were offended, they don’t understand cinema, and they’re missing the point.” And then when people point out that the Japanese are underrepresented in film and when they are represented, it’s a horrible caricature like Rooney. So then you say, “You don’t understand how cinema works!” several more times and go on to say, “It’s not offensive; it’s funny. He doesn’t mock the Japanese, he’s a comedian. Maybe you just don’t get the joke.” (Or maybe they get the joke loud and clear and they aren’t laughing — maybe the “joke” makes them feel shamed).

  • Deana

    PS. I got to this post via a notice on my WordPress dashboard; I’ve followed your blog since before it moved to Patheos. I’m a regular reader but I don’t comment much on any blog. Ours was not a fun introduction and it hurt even more that I was having an argument with someone whose writing I’ve enjoyed for the past few years. And then to have Jason jump in and say that I want the Hindu equivalent of Joel Osteen instead of a real scholar like Doniger…I’ve enjoyed Jason’s blog as well. This whole thing was not fun at all.

    • Joel Olsteen forever! Disagreements are never personal, we were just coming at a sensitive issue from different places.

  • I think you just have to look at Wikipedia to see Doniger’s influence. Edit an article to express a mainstream view and in many cases it will be removed as “un-cited”, and if you refer to a Hindu academic as “biased” and Donoger’s interpretation put as “THE Hindu belief” – as there are nice citations to an American academic.

    • Yuck. While I often find value in Wikipedia as a starting point, I deliberately avoided it during these posts. My hunch seemed to be right.

  • Parsley

    This was a very nice, honest, appropriately humble post about learning from/through mistakes/missteps. That seems a rarity on the internet, and I congratulate you for putting it out there.

    • Thanks. Even though most of my posts never get any comments, I view blogging as being part of a discussion. If I can’t learn anything then I’m just pontificating into the wind.

  • Parsley puts it well. Kudos for being willing to have a learning experience. 🙂

  • abhimanyu sirmaur

    After your post i have once again started reading this book.

    She says that she is writing history from the eyes of the subaltern people.But what i see is the history written from the colonialist point of view.she claims that she is not using “Aryan Invasion Theory(AIT)” but her every argument takes you to AIT.

    You read any history book written during colonial times and you find the same things what Wendy Doniger writes in her history of “The Hindus”. Colonialist never came to a conclusion about the invasion by the Aryans through archaeology —they just tried to prove their hypothesis of AIT by misrepresenting Hindu texts.
    e.g–Vedas says goddess Saraswati is white in colour.Historians interpret her as a white lady.Indians aren’t white so how come their goddess is proves AIT—but they cannot have a simple fact that every person relates knowledge with white colour and so do Indians.
    I don’t find a Caucasian lady but historians does.
    The same is the story of the sister of god Sun who has a golden(read blonde) hair.

    COLONIALISTS said there was massacre by the savage Aryans but later historians changed it to peaceful migration—-but this theory has no archeological proof.

    Beside this Invasion Theory has created big political problem in the country just like “Out of India Theory” of the nationalists can create problems for some minorities.So in my views these liberal-secular people are as much problem for the country as the fundamentalists are.

    Then there are many wrong interpretation or representation of Hindu history—

    e.g.-on page 162 (TALKING ANIMALS, BESTIAL HUMANS)she says —
    “The gods were afraid that Shiva and Parvati would produce a child of unbearable power, and so they interrupted them–from making love”

    But in Skanda Purana(Kedar Khand) its written that gods interrupted because they wanted a solution for the demon Tarakasur who was killing everyone.So the meaning of the passage completely changes.

    Then there are some sentences which is really outrageous
    e.g–sita an ultimate male fantasy —page 152(WOMEN: BETWEEN GODDESSES AND OGRESSES)

    I have many many objections but i cannot write everything here.
    All i can say Hindus really need many many scholars who writes from the subalterns point of view but not someone as Wendy Doniger whose writing divides India.

  • Roi de Guerre

    Kudos on your courage in putting your review and your understanding out there for public scrutiny! And also for the courage to revisit that understanding and learn from the experience. Billions of people could profit by following your example.

    When my family moved to Canada from the US we discovered that we and our friends and neighbors were often “seperated by a common language”. It highlighted for us the importance of lived experience in reaching a shared understanding.

    Now, congratulations are in order for being one of today’s lucky 10,000!