Hindus incensed by a discussion of a deity's sexuality sent Paul Courtright death threats and had his book banned. But he still finds hope amid the anger
A few weeks ago I received a startling visit from a past life. In 1985, I published a book about the Hindu god Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Parvati and Shiva, who is widely adored by Hindus as the remover of obstacles from one's undertakings. Most of the book was about stories, family ceremonies, public festivals, shrines and communities that gathered around shared devotion to Ganesha. But, in one part of a chapter interpreting Ganesha's story, I stepped across an interpretive boundary.
A column recently appeared on a website widely read by Indians in the US that looked at how scholars in the academic study of religion interpret Hinduism in ways the writer found insensitive to Hindu sentiments and denigrating to Hinduism as a religion - especially with regard to issues of sexuality.
In many Hindu texts, from high culture Sanskrit sources to comic books, the story is told of how the goddess Parvati, wife of Shiva, wanted a son who would protect her when Shiva was away in meditation. She created a being from the surface of her body and placed him at the doorway to her bath to guard her privacy. Shiva returned, not knowing who this guardian was, and sought to go past him to be with Parvati. The guardian refused Shiva entry; in the fight that followed, his head was cut off by Shiva. Parvati came to the door and demanded that Shiva restore her guardian to life. Shiva replaced the old head with the head of an elephant and adopted him as the Lord (isha) of his disciples (Gana): hence, Ganesha.
In addition to discussing various ways that Hindu tradition has understood the story, my book suggested that it may also be understood as a mythological exploration of the unconscious desires and rivalries within primary family relations: father, mother, child (son). In contrast to the tale of Oedipus, Ganesha's story brings the issues of the father-son rivalry for access to the mother to a different resolution: one in which the son is broken and restored, given proximity to but not intimacy with the mother and honoured by the father. Unlike the (western) Oedipal story, this Indic resolution is comic rather than tragic and preserves the integrity of the family unit. Other scholars, including Indian ones, had made similar observations.
In pursuing this interpretation, I made reference to phallic symbolism, castration themes and oral eroticism as an alternative to aggression.
Readers of the columnist's characterisation of my interpretation of the story felt wounded by how they saw their beloved deity portrayed. Some petitioned the president of my university to demand that I apologise, remove my book from access to students and cease teaching in the area of Hinduism. An internet petition collected 4,500 signatories demanding that the book be banned and that I be punished for writing such "filthy stuff" about Ganesha. A few signatories included threats on my life. My university immediately worked to protect me, and the web petition was removed.
As I understand it, what was wounding for this column's readers was that they found their religious experience trivialised and reduced to a kind of sexual dynamic they did not recognise. The cover of the Indian edition, which depicts a brass statue of Ganesha as a toddler with visible male anatomy, was condemned as "pornographic". The Indian publisher pulled the book from its inventory and apologised. The wound some Hindus have experienced is real, and their angry response to me and my book, at least in India, has been effective. I have been silenced - my book is no longer available there.
Colleagues at my university and in my field around the world expressed outrage at this bullying response to my work, its Indian publisher and this violation of my academic freedom. Readers in India who would like to see the fuller analysis in my book are now barred from access. A small number of Hindus, reflecting an anxiety about the relationship of sexuality and religion, have criticised me for suggesting one way, among many others, that the story of Ganesha may reflect profound insights about unconscious dimensions of human desire, violence and constructive resolution. These insights take the meaning of the story beyond the boundaries of Hinduism and offer it to everyone.
The spectre of book banning, demands for retractions and public apologies sends waves of anxiety through scholars, reminding us of the fragile state of academic freedom and the need for constant vigilance. Fortunately for me, I am a tenured faculty member in a university and part of a community of scholars who have stood resolutely beside me in their commitment to academic freedom. Still, it is painful for me to see my own words, mangled by distortion, return to me surrounded by the charge that I am participating, however unwittingly, in interpretive violence, a violence that may alienate practitioners from their own religious experience.
The good news in all this is that scholars and practitioners recognise the need to work more effectively to create the infrastructures of interpretation and understanding that will replace unproductive polarisations with new levels of communication. The technology of the internet makes possible instantaneous response and web petitions that foster cyber vigilantes; but it also holds the promise of virtual communities of dialogue and mutual appreciation. And there are encouraging signs of a new level of dialogue. In Atlanta this week, the Dharma Association sponsored a conference with the American Academy of Religion.
In two weeks, a major conference will bring scholars from 25 countries together in New Delhi.
Hindu communities forming new identities away from India sometimes feel under siege by how their sacred traditions are turned into commodities for the insatiable consumer markets of a global economy. This incident can offer us, scholars and practitioners alike, wherever we reside, an opportunity to reach a new level of discourse that is grounded in mutual respect: respect for religious sentiment and respect for scholarly inquiry.
The internet provides a new "place" to gather, share interpretations, become more mindful of what is wounding and healing, and crawl together through the painful passage of obstacles placed by the colonial legacy of knowledge, power and representation towards the door of understanding. I believe Ganesha stands at that door as I write, protecting our effort, removing its obstacles, and holding us in his care.
Paul B. Courtright is professor of religion at Emory University, Atlanta, and the author of Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings , published by Oxford University Press.