Latest posts by Vishal Agarwal (see all)
- Hating Hindus as a Fun Activity - May 19, 2014
- The Hindu Philosophy of Life Through the Movie, “The Life of Pi” - April 23, 2014
- A Critique of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus, an Alternative History” - February 20, 2014
A Critical Review of
Paul Courtright�s �Ganesa, Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings�
(Oxford University Press, 1985)
Vishal Agarwal and Kalavai Venkat
10 July 2004
Background and Importance of �Ganesa�:
In recent months, there has been a fierce controversy over Courtright�s book. The controversy really gathered steam in November 2003, when the Hindu Students Council branch at the University of Louisiana (Lafayette) started an online petition. The petition reproduced several passages from Courtright�s book, passages which if taken independently, were pornographic in nature. The petition was apparently a big success, because it attracted almost 7000 signatures within a matter of few days. Unfortunately, some anonymous signatories, taking advantage of the privacy that the Internet offers to them, posted death threats on the petition. The HSC people who started the petition immediately took if off the website before the situation became uglier.
Meanwhile, Motilal Banarsidass withdraw the book from circulation, and apologized to the protestors. These two developments in turn, raised a storm in a section of the American academic community who denounced the publishers and the protestors as Hindu fundamentalists bent on damaging the freedom of speech in American Universities by intimidating the author of a �scholarly�, �sensitive�, �thoughtful�, �peer-reviewed� and an �excellent� book. This generalization is quite crude and reductionist, in our opinion. We often hear these same academicians sermonize us on how we should approach things in a nuanced, sensitive, multivalent manner, and that we should consider many different perspectives of the same issue. Why are the same people now trying to reduce it to an issue of freedom of speech? And why is it that we get an impression that they are suppressing dissent in academic discussion lists controlled by them?
Courtright�s book cannot be ignored, and in fact, it is a prominent Indological publication for several reasons. First, it bears a Foreword by none other than Wendy Doniger, who is the currently reigning Czarina of Indology in the United States, a cult-figure for her very large group of children, her students. Second, the book has received a national award for its presumed excellence. Third, it was published by the Oxford University Press, one of the most reputed academic publishers in the world. Fourth, its reprint in India was brought out by Motilal Banarsidass, the largest publisher, exporter and distributor of Indological books in India. Fifth, it appears that slanted descriptions of the deity in the book have started creeping into mainstream society in the West. For instance, in a recent exhibit on the Hindu deity arranged by a museum in Baltimore, the book served as a seminal text that was quoted in citations accompanying the exhibit. Sixth, since the publication of the book, Paul B. Courtright is acknowledged an authority on the subject of Ganesa. This evident from the way in which numerous other writers of books on the deity not only acknowledge his help and guidance, they often quote his text approvingly or at least in a neutral manner. Seventh, the book is derived, at least in part, from his PhD thesis, and therefore should be considered a result of intensive research by the author. Eighth, in the wake of this controversy, a number of professional scholars in Hinduism Studies and in related fields have actually gone on record with their whole-hearted praise of the book. Ninth, Courtright has done better professionally than most other scholars in Hinduism studies. He is currently the co-chair of his department in the Emory University, where he teaches. Tenth, a cursory search on WorldCat and other electronic catalogs shows that approximately 300 College and School libraries in North America alone have a copy of this book on their shelves. This is a very large number for any Indological publication, and attests to the book�s widespread acclaim and popularity in American academia. Finally, a sourcebook on Hinduism and Psychoanalysis cites long extracts from his book to explain the father-son relationship in the Hindu society. These citations actually constitute some of the most vulgar and offensive sections of �Ganesa�. Obviously according to the author of this sourcebook, Courtright�s work is seminal for a psychoanalytical understanding of family relationships amongst Hindus.
Being such an important book also means that the controversy raises many other issues besides the question of free speech and academic freedom. In our review, we restrict ourselves to the issue of Paul Courtright�s misuse of primary data from Hindu texts for developing his theses. We argue that since the author has taken great liberties with Hindu texts and traditions, his interpretations depend on a flawed set of data and therefore cannot be valid. We shall examine his (mis)use of textual data under different classes of Hindu scriptures. We wish to emphasize that the examples given below are merely illustrative and form a small subset of distortions pervading the book.
Distortion of data from Hindu Scriptures in �Ganesa� (1985)
1. Vedic Samhitas: in Chapter II of his book, Courtright claims, �The association of the thigh with the phallus in the Indian tradition dates from the Rg Veda (RV 8.4.1).� The mantra in question reads,
yadindra praagapaagudam nyag vaa uuyase nrbhih simaa puruu nrshuuto asyaanave.asi prashardha turvashe |
Ralph Griffith�s translation reads �
�Though Indra, thou are called by men eastward and westward, north and south, Thou chiefly art with Anava and Turvasa, brave Champion! urged by Men to come.�
We do not see any reference to penis and thighs here, and therefore wonder what Courtright was thinking here.
2. Brahmanas: Referring to the occurrence of the word Ganapati in Aitareya Brahmana 1.21, Courtright claims that the reference is to Siva. The actual text reads �ganaanaam tvaa ganapatim havaamah iti brahmanaspatyambrahma vai��, showing that here ganapati actually refers to Brahmanaspati (=Brhaspati) and not to Siva. In fact, the Brahmana text is clearly referring here to Rgveda 2.23.1 that reads,
�ganaanaam tvaa ganapatim havaamahe kavin kaviinaam upamasravastamam jyeshtaraajam braahmanaam brahmanaspata aa nah srnvann uutibhih siida saadanam�
The mantra is addressed to Brhaspati, who is indeed the devataa of this mantra according to Shaunakiya Brhaddevata.
Finally, he says �TB 10.15� contains the word �dantin�. This reference by Courtright is problematic because Taittiriya Brahmana is divided into 3 books that are further divided into smaller sections. Therefore, TB 10.15 does not make much sense. The Vedic Word Concordance of Vishvabandhu also does not point to any occurrence of the word �dantin� in the entire Taittiriya Brahmana. Courtright attributes this textual reference to a publication of Louis Renou. However, when we checked Renou�s article, we did not find any mention at all of the Taittiriya Brahmana in it. The reference in Renou�s article is in fact to Maitrayani Samhita 2.9.1. The presence of so many errors of textual citations in just about 1 page of the book are simply unacceptable from an academic perspective.
3. Aranyakas: While dismissing all Vedic references as evidence that the worship of Ganesa was known when the Vedic texts were in vogue, he says,
�A similar invocation in another Brahmanic text addresses �the one with the twisted trunk [vakratunda]� (TĀ 10.1.5), also leaving it uncertain whether it is Ganesa or Siva who is being addressed.�
This is puzzling, because vakratunda is distinctly another name for Ganesa, and moreover, the last portion of the mantra reads � �tanno dantih pracodayaat�, where the reference is clearly to the tusk of Ganesa. Courtright also mistakenly classifies the text as �Brahmanic�, whereas in reality it is a �mantra�. Another reason why the mantra containing the word �vakratunda� does not refer to Siva is that the preceding mantra is in fact addressed to Mahadeva and Rudra, and the mantra after the �Vighnesvaragayatri� is addressed to Nandin. Moreover, the mantra after the Nandigayatri is addressed to Karttikeya, who is the brother of Ganesa. So, from the words of the mantra and from its context as well, it should be understood that the mantra is clearly addressed to Sri Ganesa and not to Lord Siva. The parallel mantra in Maitrayani Samhita 2.9.1 reads �hastimukhaaya� in lieu of �vakratundaaya�.
4. Kalpasutras: While describing his sexualized version of Ganesa and the stories associated with him, Courtright takes a step forward and transplants erotica onto the solemn Hindu ceremony of upanayana in which young Hindu males are initiated into their student life. The ceremony involves a symbolic transformation of the would be teacher of the student into his new father. This father-son relationship between teacher-student is maintained for the rest of the life, and does not severe the relationship of the student with his biological father. However, Courtright sees something sexual in this whole affair,
�This new father/son, guru/disciple. Acarya/brahmacarin relationship creates a new bond of affection in the context of absolute domination by the authority figure and utter dependence of the disciple. The sexual nuances of this relationship are well hidden, but it is significant that in the myth Siva gives Ganesa his weapons and in the ritual the acarya gives the brahmacarin the ascetic�s staff [yogadanda] � symbols, like the broken tusk, of the detached phallus. Carstairs notes further �There is also a powerfully repressed homosexual fixation on the father. This is shown…. in indirect and sublimated form, in a man�s feeling toward his Guru � in one context in which a warm affectionate relationship (although a passive and dependent one) is given free expression�….�
So, the pair of Carstairs and Courtright have debased even the �teacher � student relationship� in the Hindu society (perhaps privileging the Western version indirectly) by imparting perverse sexual connotations to it. We are indeed curious to know how Courtright would psychoanalyze his relationships with his own students.
Earlier in his book, Courtright assigns sexual connotations to several individual rituals constituting the upanayana rite. Thus, when the sacred thread has been placed on the boy-student, he takes it saying �My staff which fell to the ground in the open air, that I take up again for the sake of long life, holy luster, and holiness� (Paraskara Grhyasutra 2.2.14). Courtright sees the �danda� (=staff) as an �alter-penis� and remarks,
�From a psychoanalytical perspective, this ritual move may be read as a symbolic castration, in that his ascetic/guardian staff protects him while he remains celibate.�
One would normally expect such interpretations from juveniles who have watched too many Hollywood or Bollywood movies. Not from an academician in an award winning book.
In the Indian ascetic tradition, there is a long-standing controversy on whether the staff should be single or if it should be a triple-staff (tridanda). One wonders what would be Courtright�s perspective on this controversy. Hindu tradition sees the �danda� as a symbol of chastisement or discipline, whether inflicted or self-enforced. When a young student assumes a �danda�, he is in effect wowing that he will live according to prescribed rigors of student life.
It may be pointed out here that the Hindus have been doing the upanayana ceremony for their children, often aged five to eight years, for several thousand years now. If there is any reality in Courtright�s imaginative interpretation that �danda� = penis, then the inescapable conclusion is that millions of Hindu children have been subjected unconsciously (or consciously) to sexual abuse by being handed a pseudo-penis in their hand by a male elder during the ceremony.
While we find such erotic interpretations of the upanayana obscene, Wendy Doniger O�Flaherty finds it so charming that she made a special eulogistic mention of it in her Foreword.
Let us now turn to Hindu tradition itself to verify what significance and symbolism it attaches to the student�s staff. The text cited by Courtright is Paraskara Grhyasutra, which has been blessed with a very strong commentatorial tradition. The aphorism 2.2.14 in question reads �
�taM pratigR^iNati yo me daNDaH paraapatadvaihaayaso adhibhuumyaaM tamahaM punaraadada aayuShe brahmaNe brahmavarcasaayeti�
Courtright follows the translation of Hermann Oldenberg, which is somewhat inaccurate, and he is gladly mislead by it. A more accurate translation of the text would be �
�This staff of mine, which has fallen from the sky to the ground, that I take again (or take properly) for a long life, for Vedic study and for holy luster.�
Oldenberg must be turning in his grave to learn that his words �My staff which fell to the ground in the open air� would be misused by Courtright to create his phallus-centric interpretation in which the staff is seen as an exposed penis of which the young student has been deprived. When the text is translated more accurately as we have done above, the staff is seen to be a reminder and a symbol of Dharmic authority, or Dharmic discipline with which the teacher invests the student and motivates him to pursue his Divinely ordained duty of studying the Sacred Texts before he gets married. This interpretation is supported by explanations in numerous traditional commentaries consulted by us. The staff is widely used to symbolize authority and discipline in numerous cultures all over the world, and Hindu texts are no exception. Perhaps Courtright could explain to us what the staff of Moses, which parted the Red Sea, stands for in his Freudian world.
Courtright does not even make the pretense of acknowledging how the Hindu tradition itself interprets the staff of a celibate student, something that he could have found out by referring to even basic works on Hindu Samskaras or sacraments. He would have found that according to some authorities, studentship was considered as a long sacrifice, and therefore, a student was expected to bear the staff just as a scholar would in a long sacrifice. Paraskara Grhyasutra 2.6.26 suggests that the purpose of the staff was to protect against human and non-human attackers. According to Manava Grhyasutra 1.22.11, the student is a traveler on the long road of knowledge. When this paradigm is considered, the staff assumed by the student then becomes reminiscent of the staff used by a traveler. According to the Varaha Grhyasutra, the staff was the symbol of the watchman. Apararka on Yajnavalkya Smrti 1.29 states that bearing the staff makes the student self-confident and self-reliant when he goes out to the forest to collect fire-sticks for yajnas, for tending the cattle of his teacher or when he travels in darkness.
In other words, while the Indian tradition takes the staff as a symbol of authority, discipline, protection and so on, Courtright sees just a Penis. In his Ph.D. thesis too, Courtright refers to the staff which Parvati gave to her son Ganesa for guarding her chamber and says �
�Parvati arms Ganesa with a stick, an implement which might be interpreted to represent a detachable phallus, the emblem of male physical prowess.�
How would Courtright interpret the instances in his childhood wherein he was handed a pen, or a broom, or a stick or even a candy bar by his parent(s)?
We leave it to the reader to decide if Courtright�s interpretations are genuine or reasonable scholarship, or if they are just pornographic fiction.
5. Vishnu Purana (Eroticization of Gajalakshmi): Courtright rightly quotes the Vishnu Purana 1.9.103 according to which when Devi Lakshmi emerged during the churning of the Ocean, Ganga and other sacred rivers appeared at the site. The celestial elephants then poured water from these sacred rivers on her with golden vessels. A few pages later he transforms this into an erotic narration,
�The male attributes of the elephant are so obvious as to need no comment. Not only the trunk but the tusk has phallic associations on some of the Ganesa stories. The myth of the elephant guardians anointing Lakshmi by spraying water over her seems the fullest expression of male fertility surrounding female fecundity. As O�Flaherty has shown, moreover, rain tends to be associated with male seed in the Indian tradition, whereas rivers appear as symbolic expressions of the feminine aspect of water��
In fact, it was and is fairly common in India for holy men, princes and other great men to be honored by flowers and water poured on them by elephants. Would Courtright interpret all these as suggestive of homosexual encounters? Moreover, the Vishnu Purana text clearly states that the elephants took the waters of rivers (feminine according to Courtright). So it is surprising that the water from feminine rivers would get transformed suddenly into virile semen after the elephants poured it over Lakshmi. What we are trying to suggest is that the so-called analysis by Courtright is nothing but his own perverse imagination. We are in fact surprised why he failed to see the connection between �hiranyam� (=gold, light, brightness) and �retas� (=seed, semen) in the Hindu tradition to argue that the feminine river water changed its sex to masculine semen in the gold-pitchers used by the elephants to pour river waters over Lakshmi! [Pictures of the Gajalakshmi motif were shown to the audience to explain the Vishnu Purana passage. This motif is very often depicted on posters and calendars].
Courtright misses some relevant passages in the Ganesa Purana (Upasana-khanda 15.1-7) according to which Brahmaji once had a vision of a banyan tree. Brahmaji saw baalaganesa (baby-ganesa) playing on a leaf of the tree and wondered how a human baby with an elephant head arrived there, and how the tree itself could survive the waters of deluge. Suddenly, baalaganesa lifted his trunk and sprinkled the water on Brahmaji�s head, whence Brahmaji was filled with joy as well as anxiety and burst into laughter. According to Courtright and Doniger�s methodology, Brahmaji�s dream should perhaps be interpreted as a homo-erotic fantasy because an �erect� trunk is shedding �semen� on Brahmaji�s �head�. In any case, such passages clearly negate Courtright�s �limp-phallus� fantasy, which we would discuss in more detail later as well.
6. Linga Purana (Creation of Mankind from The Arse): Courtright claims,
�Some Puranic sources maintain that demons and humans have come from the divine rectum (BhP 2.6.8; LP 1.70.199; cf. O�Flaherty 1976, p. 140).�
This claim of Courtright and Wendy Doniger does not stand to scrutiny. Neither the Linga Purana nor the Bhagavata Purana derive mankind from the divine Anus. Rather, Linga Purana 1.7.212-215ab says that mankind arose from the mind of the Creator whereas according to the verse in the Bhagavata Purana, the genitals of God are the source of water, semen, rains, procreative power of humans, the pleasure associated with coitus etc. There is no mention of anus or of men.
7. Kurma Purana (Misintepretations): Following a 1975 book of Wendy Doniger, Courtright interprets a tale in Kurma Purana 2.37 in the following words,
�The variant of the beheading tale introduces the act of self mutilation by which Ganesa tears out his own tusk and holds it like a yogin�s staff, like his father holds the trident. The gesture is reminiscent of the time his father broke off his own phallus when he saw it was no longer of use except to create progeny (KP 2.37; O�Flaherty 1975, pp. 137-141). This act of self-mutilation makes Ganesa more like his father.�
The claim that �(Siva) broke off his own phallus when he saw it was no longer of use except to create progeny� is a contrived interpretation of Kurma Purana 2.37. The context is actually this: Once upon a time, several thousands of seers, along with their wives and sons, practiced intense austerities in a forest, while also remaining engaged in worldly life. Lord Siva wanted to demonstrate the great fault in mixing worldly life with penances, and therefore he and Vishnu respectively assumed the form of a handsome man and a beautiful woman. They approached the settlement, with Lord Siva naked, and Lord Vishnu (in the form of a woman) dressed beautifully. Upon seeing them, the wives of the sages were filled with passion for Lord Siva, while the Sages and their sons themselves got attracted towards the woman. Soon the Sages realized what was going on and they approached Lord Siva in great anger, asking him to put on his clothes and abandon his own wife (the female form of Lord Vishnu). They also cast suspicions on the character of the lady (the female form of Lord Vishnu) Lord Siva replied that he was an ascetic and rules of modesty did not apply to him. Moreover, he argued that that his wife was pure and that the sages� accusations were unfair. The Sages started assaulting Lord Siva physically and asked him to castrate himself. Lord Siva replied that he would gladly do so if their enmity were with his linga. However, as soon as he did so, the world became dark, and the Sages were unable to see Lord Siva, Lord Vishnu and even the linga. The story thus continues and eventually Lord Brahma explains to the Sages that all their sacrifices, Vedic learning and meditation are fruitless if they do not aspire to know Mahaadeva, and also describes the glory of worship of Sivalinga and so on.
In another case of misinterpretation of the same text, Courtright says,
�He [Siva] attacks Daksa�s sacrifice, beheading him and turning his head into the sacrificial offering, thus completing the rite that he had originally set out to destroy (KP 1.14).�
Kurma Purana actually says quite the opposite. Daksa conducts a yajna but does not offer anything to Lord Siva. Sage Dadhici urges him to include Lord Siva also with other devatas but Daksa refuses saying that all the other devatas are already present and he does not recognize Lord Siva as a deity. All deities and sages then leave, boycotting the yajna. Only Lord Vishnu stays back and Daksa seeks refuge in him. Nevertheless, Lord Siva does arrive, with his attendants. The latter go on a warpath, ruining the sacrifice and attacking minor deities. At this juncture, Daksa realizing his mistake offers homage to Parvati, who intercedes on his behalf with Lord Siva. Lord Siva instructs Daksa to include all deities and also Himself in his sacrifices. This is followed by a sermon to Daksa by Lord Brahma who describes the greatness of Lord Siva and then asks Daksa not to differentiate between Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu because they are not separate, and therefore he should be devoted to both of them.
8. Bhagavata Purana (Eroticizing Gajendra Moskha episode): The Gajendramoksa narrative, occurring in the eighth book (skandha) of the Bhagavata Purana, is a beautiful tale of devotion and Divine grace that continues to inspire millions of Hindus even to this day. The central theme of the narrative is that no measure of worldly power and happiness can save us in the time of dire calamity, only God can. Here is how Courtright looks at the story,
�Once, the king of the elephants, along with his wives and children came to a splendid garden at the foot of the mountain that was surrounded by an ocean like the ocean of milk. With musk fluid oozing from his forehead, with bees swarming around it, the elephant plunged into the ocean to cool himself. He sprayed water over the females and the females and the young ones bathed and drank. Then a mighty alligator, who had become angry at this intrusion into the ocean, seized hold of the elephant�s foot and held it fast in his jaws. When the wives of the elephant king saw that he was being dragged further and further into the ocean, they tried in vain to pull him back out. As the alligator and the elephant struggled with one another, the elephant became increasingly weaker while the alligator grew stronger. When he saw that he could not free himself from the trap of alligator�s jaws, the elephant called out to Vishnu for refuge. When Visnu saw the elephant�s plight, he came there and pulled the elephant and the alligator out of the water. He transformed the alligator back into Huhu, the celestial gandharva who had been cursed by the sage Devala [Narada] because he had been sporting in the water with some women when Devala wanted to bathe. When Huhu pulled on Devala�s leg he was cursed to take the form of an alligator, only to be rescued from it by seizing hold of the leg of an elephant. (BhP 8.204)�
Apparently the address �BhP 8.204� is a typographical error in place of BhP 8.2-4. Anyway, after summarizing a longish story considerably, Courtright then interprets the tale in the following manner,
�In this myth of conflict between the alligator and the elephant, we see some similarities to the myths of Airavata and Durvasas. At the conclusion of the myth, we learn that the alligator is really a disguise of an erotic gandharva, who had been cursed by the ascetic Devala for touching him while he was bathing, much as the flying elephants had been cursed by the sage Dirghatapas when they brushed against the tree under which he was sitting. By transforming the gandharva Huhu into an alligator, the ascetic reverses their roles, for now the alligator is the one whose watery territory is invaded by the elephant. His biting the leg of the elephant echoes the theme of beheading, which we have seen at work in other myths. The conflict between the alligator and the elephant surrounded by his entourage of cows � like the conflicts between the sage and the gandharva, between Siva and Gajasura, and between Durvasas and Indra � draws on the important theme in Hindu mythology of the tension between the powers of eroticism and asceticism. The tension between the alligator and the race elephant cannot be resolved, and so they both edge their way to destruction. At this desperate moment the myth turns to the solution of bhakti��
And in this manner, Courtright goes on and on with his racy prose, bringing disparate, unrelated facts picked up selectively, and then force-fits them together artificially and unconvincingly into models of �beheading�, �tension between the powers of eroticism and asceticism� and so on. How does he do this exactly? First, he enhances the sexual connotations of the passage in Bhagavata Purana. Though his summary is fairly short, considering that the text extends over 92 verses, Courtright does not refrain from amplifying the aspects that suit his theory. Now, in these verses, the word �madacyut� could certainly mean that the elephant king was in rut, and this meaning is supported by the mention of �intoxicated black-bees� (�likulaih madasanaih) following him. However, what needs to be kept in mind is that in accordance with the excellent poetical character of the Bhagavata Purana, the narrative in chapter 2 merely conforms to the �embellished kaavya style� and a �somewhat pallid erotic tinge, derived from stereotypical landscape descriptions in the Sanskrit courtly kaavya�emerges in one or two verses��. In other words, the so-called �eroticism� in these verses is �formulaic�, and only incidentally a part of the long narrative of this chapter, whose main intent is to describe the lordliness, the arrogance, the marital bliss and familial happiness of Gajendra, in conjunction with the beauty of his surroundings. Moreover, Gajendra is surrounded not only by his wives, but also his children. He is happy with his life, and even arrogant, crushing numerous creepers and thickets on his way to the ocean (verse 20), terrifying the large animals of the forest (verse 21) but showering his grace on the smaller creatures (verse 22). Yet, when the powerful lordly elephant, supported by his wives (and also his male elephant friends per verse 28 � a detail that Courtright leaves out) fights the alligator without any success, he realizes that only God can save him and his family, friends and power is of no avail.
The besieged creature then bursts forth in a splendid hymn of praise and entreaty to Lord Vishnu. Hearing the prayers of his devotee, the deity appears, mounted on Garuda, his vehicle bird. Gajendra is freed of course, but so strong is the salvation-granting power of God that even the alligator is released from his ugly body and transformed into a gandharva. The narrative then reveals the tale of the previous life of Gajendra, when he was a pious king of the Pandya kingdom, and ends with verses describing the fruit of hearing this tale of devotion. So when Courtright emphasizes the incidental �erotic� aspects of the inspiring tale of devotion, there is a �sexual� purpose behind it. Why? Because Courtright compares the scene of Gajendra�s struggle with the alligator with the episodes of the �sage and the gandharva�, �Siva and Gajasura�, and �Durvasas and Indra� to force-fit the Gajendramoksa narrative into the schemes of beheading and �tension between the powers of asceticism and eroticism.�
9. Devibhagavata Purana (How to Imagine an Incestuous Rape): Referring to chapter 7.30, Courtright claims �
In another story the goddess gave this flower to Durvasas who in turn gave it to Daksa, who became so aroused by the scent of the flower that he made love to his daughter Sati �in the manner of a mere beast.� This shameful action drove her to burn her body, that is, commit sati, and provoked Siva to such a rage that he beheaded Daksa (DBP 7.30).�
The text certainly does not say that �he made love to his daughter Sati in the manner of a mere animal� as Courtright claims. Rather, it says that intoxicated by the scent of a flower gifted by the Devi (who was reborn as Sati, his daughter), Daksha indulges in sex and thus defiles the flower that the Devi had gifted to him. Daksha further insults Shiva who is the husband of Devi. Therefore, Sati, who is really Devi incarnate, decides to destroy the body that she begot by taking birth as Daksha�s daughter, and immolates herself. The text certainly does not say, �This shameful action [of Daksa�s incestuous rape of Sati � reviewers� addition] drove her to burn her body.� This �scholarly� version is but Courtright�s own invention. The manner in which Courtright gives a perverse sexual kink to Pauranic passages is really pathetic.
10. Vamana Purana (Conspiracy theories): Courtright revisits the theme of the problem of the Vedic origins of Ganesa. It is true that there are not many unambiguous references to Ganesa in the Vedic texts, in contrast with the exalted manner in which he is referred to in the texts of classical Hinduism � the Puranas. To explain this discrepancy, Courtright comes up with a conspiracy theory. He argues that the Puranas attempt to cover-up his demon ancestry and are uncomfortably aware of the discrepancy between the malevolent, obstacle-creating powers of Vinayaka and the positive, obstacle-removing actions of Ganesa. According to him, the Puranas seek to resolve this contradiction by various mechanisms such as �clever use of false etymologies for the name �Vinayaka�.� He says,
�In one case, when Siva saw, much to his surprise, that Ganesa appeared out of the mixture of his and Parvati�s sweat and bathwater, he exclaimed to her, �A son has been born to you without [vinā] a husband [nāyakena]; therefore this son shall be named Vināyaka� (VāmP 28.71-72). This etymological sleight of hand obscures the association of Vināyaka with �those who lead astray� which is its etymologically prior meaning, and connects it with another meaning of nāyaka as leader or husband.�
The Purana has really not indulged in any subterfuge because in the second half of this very verse (28.72cd) Lord Siva clearly says that Ganesa will create obstacles for devatas and others (�esha vighnasahasraani suradiinaam karishyati�). The meaning of the word vinaayaka given by the Purana is definitely possible grammatically, without any strain at all. The moot question pertaining to historiography is whether the meaning �creator obstacles� for �vinaayaka� was in vogue or the norm at the time the Vamana Purana was compiled. If not, then we cannot accuse the author of the Purana with a �sleight of hand�.
11. Varaha Purana (Dubious Passage on maternal aggression): Courtright says,
�The theme of maternal aggression in the myths of Ganesa is more veiled; but it is there � as we have seen in the myth where Parvati curses Ganesa to be ugly and as we shall see in the myth where she places him at the doorway to be cut down to size by Siva…�
We are not aware of any Pauranic text where Parvati curses Ganesa to be ugly. Courtright himself admits that this story is not found in any printed edition of Varaha Purana, although it is attributed to this text by a Christian missionary traveler to India, and by an old, ill-informed author writing in the first half of 1800s who may have relied himself on this missionary�s work for this piece of information. We shall discuss this issue more later. It is also questionable if Parvati�s asking Ganesa to stand guard at the doorway should be taken as a �veiled� instance of �maternal aggression�.
12. Ganesha Purana (Fiction of Limp Phallus): Perhaps the most offensive statements made by Paul relates to his description of Ganesa�s trunk as a limp phallus. Courtright�s fiction of limp trunks and phalluses is not exactly supported by the Hindu texts. For instance, Ganesa Purana, which he largely ignores, states that the trunk of Ganesa is so strong that it is more powerful than that of Airavata and other elephants who are guardians of the eight quarters of the Universe. Courtright thus misses a good opportunity to discuss �Penis-Envy�. The Tantric texts, which Courtright ignores, distinguish clearly between the trunk and his phallus, and the latter does perform its intended functions according to these texts. In short, data from the texts ignored by Courtright completely negates his own fantasy about Ganesa�s trunk. [Numerous pictures of ancient icons were shown to the audience, to demonstrate that the deity can have a raised and erect trunk as well].
13. Tantra, Yoga and Upanishads: Courtright alleges that the replacement of Ganesha�s human head by an elephant head represents castration. To equate the head of Ganesha with penis, he states –
As Robert Goldman points out in commenting on Ganesa�s beheading, �This particular mode of displaced castration is a common feature of Hindu legends. Beheading is, moreover, a regular symbol for castration in dreams and fantasies� (pp. 371-372,; cf. Freud, pp. 366-369). In traditional Indian yogic physiology the head is the receptacle of both thought and sexual potency or seed. In Tantric descriptions of the process of spiritual liberation [moksa] the seed is drawn up from the sexual organs through the various centers [cakra] along the spinal axis until it is released through an aperture at the top of the head [brahmarandhra cakra or sahasrara cakra] (cf. O�Flaherty 1980, pp. 17-61). In some versions of the myth where the Ganesa already has his elephantine form, the �displaced castration� takes place on an even more obvious surrogate, the tusk. In separating Ganesa�s head/tusk Siva, or one of his stand-ins, removes any potential threat of incest and thereby leaves Ganesa sexually ambiguous…�
A yogin is supposed to prevent his �seed� [retas] from falling [skhalana] out and instead cause it to rise in his body till it reaches the head [urdhvareta]. So far so good, but how is this relevant in this context especially when Courtright himself is at pains to suggest that Ganesa�s wisdom is not the transcendental wisdom of Vedanta and Upanishads and he is �not a deity of transcendental realization�, and rather �rules the concrete world of action and its fruits, success and failure, triumph and pain�? It appears that in their zeal to make their interpretations more juicy and full, Goldman and Courtright would not have even a pretense of consistency, but would do with whatever they �find�.
Relating the beheading of Ganesa to the brahmarandhra cakra in such a contrived manner is also contradicted by direct data from Tantric Hindu texts that are ignored by Courtright. These texts actually relate the deity to the muulaadhaara cakra that is at the base of the spine, close to the anus. The reason is quite transparent � Ganesa is the lord of the threshold, and moreover Hindu prayer ceremonies commence with invocations to Ganesa. Likewise, in the initial stages of Yogic meditation, the focus is on muulaadhaara cakra. The practitioner of Yoga in his initial stages tries to �awaken� his kundalini, that is located in the muulaadhaara cakra. And things become easier once this has happened, just as our tasks become easier if we commence them with an invocation to Ganesa. The Rudrayaamala Tantra clearly states that Ganesa�s elephant head with the curved trunk resembles the form of the kundalini, which resides in the muulaadhaara cakra.
14. Ekadantin of Hindu tradition: One of the tusks of the deity is broken, or missing. As expected then, under the subject �The Tusk�, all kinds of disjointed, unrelated, disparate Puranic narratives are brought together in an artificial manner by Courtright to lay the ground for discussions on beheading, decapitation, amorous play and all such sexual, Freudian stuff in Chapter III. Ignored of course are the mystical, spiritual interpretations of his single tusk (e.g., Mudgala Purana 2.52.13-14) wherein the tusk is related to maayaa. It is definitely worth investigating what meaning Hindu tradition itself accords to the broken tusk of the deity. To determine the traditional meanings of the broken tusk, we explored a wide range of Hindu texts, from Kavyas to Puranas, and found the following explanations –
In a major Purana text, Lord Vishnu explains the word �ekadanta� as follows �
�the word �eka� means supreme (pradhana), and the word �danta� denotes strength�. To Him (Ganesa) who is supremely powerful/strong, I (Lord Vishnu) offer homage.�
Far from being a castrated phallus, the broken tusk of Ganesa is a potent weapon. Ganesapurana, Kridakhanda (chapters 62-70) describes a battle waged between Devāntaka and Ganesa, the latter assisted by his spouses. Devāntaka uproots the tusk of Ganesa, but the deity uses this very broken tusk to penetrate the demon�s chest and thus kills him.
The Mudgala Purana discusses the eight avataras of Ganesa, in eight sections. The second section is the ekadantakhanda. Mudgala Purana 2.52.13-14 etc. state that the word �eka� means �māyā� whereas �danta� represents the Atman that illuminates the māyā through superimposition or reflection. This is a Vedantic interpretation of the single tusk.
Sant Jnanesvara (1275-1297 CE) begins his Jnanesvari, a celebrated Maharashtri commentary on the Gita, with a devotional praise of Ganesa, in twenty-one verses. Verse 16 states that the deity vanquished the heretical Buddhist doctrine with his broken tusk.
In Sisupalavadha 1.60 of poet Maagha, it is stated that Ganesa has one tusk because Ravana uprooted his second tusk to make ivory earrings for the beautiful women of his kingdom.
And of course, the tradition that Ganesa uprooted his tusk to serve as a pen for writing the Mahabharata at the dictation of Sage Veda Vyasa is too well known to recount here. The tale is narrated by Courtright himself.
One could also refer to traditional shilpashastras which indicate that the icon of the deity can actually have more than two tusks. In other words, tradition is not uniform on whether the deity has just one tusk. Therefore Courtright kitsch-psychoanalysis is based on a crude reduction of the diversity seen in Hindu iconography. [Pictures were shown to the audience to demonstrate the icons of the deity can have 4 or more tusks, and that he need not have a pot-belly].
In short, Courtright considers Ganesa�s beheading as a castration, his trunk as a symbol of a limp phallus and now his broken tusk as another castration! It is therefore legitimate to ask if one person can be castrated and emasculated thrice! And from a psychoanalytical perspective, one may wonder who it is that has actually demonstrated a Penis Envy in this entire episode!
Conclusion: Academic Scholarship, or �Peer-Reviewed Pornography�?
The above examples are but a small specimen of erroneous translations, selective use of Hindu textual evidence, insufficient knowledge of Tantric and Yogic traditions, over-sexualization of passages in Hindu texts and so on that characterize Courtright�s book, page after page, and chapter after chapter. It is fair to say that being based on incorrect data, his interpretations and his reconstruction of the Hindu deity Ganesha are by and large invalid.
To conclude then, Courtright�s book may be considered as an example of excellent pornographic fiction, and also as an example of shoddy academic scholarship. It is therefore surprising that several scholars in South Asian and Indology Programs in the United States have praised the book and have awarded it. It makes one wonder if this is due to the fact that the level of scholarship in Indian and Hinduism studies is really very low in American Universities.
Perhaps, it is not out of place to mention that even Courtright�s PhD thesis is so full of errors, that it does not even spell the names of Hindu texts and common Hindu terms correctly. For instance �
On Page 5, Atharva Veda is mis-spelt as �Athārva Veda�
On Page 14 and 17 etc., the Mahābhārata is mis-spelt as �Māhabhārata�
On Page 14 and 15, the Mānavagr,hyasūtra� is mis-spelt as �Mānavagr,hasūtra�
On Page 16, the Yājn0avalkyasmr,ti is mis-spelt as �Yajn0avālkyasmr,ti�
On Page 18, Mahābhās,ya is mis-spelt as �Māhabhās,a�
On Page 18, Rāmāyan,a is mis-spelt as �Rāmayāna�
On Page 19, Mahāpurān,a is mis-spelt as �Māhapurān,a�, Matsyapurān,a as �Matsyapūran,a�, Vāyupurān,a as �Vayupurān,a�.
On Page 20, Jaya is mis-spelt as �Jāyā�, Vijaya as �Vijāyā�
On Page 22, Śakti is mis-spelt as �Śaktī�.
On Page 24, Prahara is mis-spelt as �Prahāra�
Apparently, the transliteration marks serve more an artistic than a phonetic purpose. A new meaning to Liberal Arts, should we say?
NOTE: For a fuller text of this review covering many other academic issues with Courtright�s book (such as his characterizations of the deity as a eunuch, as someone who has a penchant for oral sex, as someone who has erotic claims on His own mother and so on), please visit �
1. Word Version: http://vishalagarwal.bharatvani.org/Courtright1and2.doc
- The book will be referred to henceforth as �Ganesa�.
- In fact, the petition had already disappeared by the time both of us had a chance to read it, and look at the signatures. Our description of the petition is derived from second hand accounts. We think that HSC behaved in a very responsible and mature manner by removing their petition from the Internet promptly.
- See for instance the article �Scholars of Hinduism Under Attack� by Martin Marty at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/128/story_12899_1.html
- A rejoinder named �U.S. Hinduism Studies: A Question of Shoddy Scholarship� to this article by Sankrant Sanu is also available at http://www.beliefnet.com/story/146/story_14684_1.html
- In speeches across US University Campuses, Courtright himself has been making similar allegations and has been trying to portray himself as a victim of Hindu fundamentalism, whereas in reality, it is the Hindu society that has suffered from his shoddy and pervert �scholarship�.
- The award was given in 1985 by the �Committee on the History of Religions� of the �American Council of Learned Societies�. It may be noted that the discipline of �History of Religions� emerged, for all practical purposes, from the University of Chicago, where Wendy Doniger is in fact a Professor in �History of Religions�!
- Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. It is also a legitimate question whether the recent offensive transformation of Lord Ganesha into �Gaynesh� by Australian gay groups leading to Hindu protests was inspired, at least in part, by Courtright�s book which alleges the deity�s penchant for oral sex, and his deep similarities with eunuchs. See http://gaytoday.badpuppy.com/garchive/events/111799ev.htm
- For instance, a contribution in the following volume edited by Romila Thapar (all contributors are from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi) summarizes Courtright�s psychoanalytic interpretations as an example of modern way of historiographical study of religion-
- R. Thapar (ed.). 1995. Recent Perspectives of Early Indian History. Popular Prakashan: Bombay
- Courtright, Paul Barber. 1974. Ganesa and the Ganesa Festival in Maharashtra, A Study in Hindu Religious Celebration. Princeton University PhD Thesis.
- Completed in 1974, which is eleven years before the publication of the book. It is reasonable to assume that the book therefore contains the fruits of his intensive research as a doctoral student, and perhaps a lot of other subsequent research in the eleven years thereafter.
- T. G. Vaidyanathan and Jeffrey Kripal (eds.). 1999. Vishnu on Freud�s Desk. OUP: New Delhi
- �Ganesa�, p. 61
- Rgveda 8.4.1
- We have quoted Griffith�s translation only because it is the most popular of all translations in European languages. Otherwise we also consulted the translations of Geldner, Velankar, Satavalekar etc., and they were essentially the same.
- This is not to say that the Vedic literature does not use euphemisms to refer to the phallus. The use of such euphemisms in fact seems quite prevalent in the texts of all religions. One may refer to some examples from the Bible itself, consider that Courtright has had a Protestant Christian upbringing – In Genesis, Abraham orders his servant Eliezer to swear by putting his hand under his (Abraham�s) thigh. Jacob, renamed Israel, asks his son Joseph to swear in the same way. In Genesis and Exodus, Jacob�s son are said to be born from his thighs. These are all considered euphemisms for swearing by touching the male member in Biblical times.
- Although Courtright uses the �mandala-sukta-mantra� scheme in referencing individual mantras of Rgveda, we also crosschecked RV 8.4.1 according to the ashtaka-sukta-mantra scheme. This mantra again did not have any reference to thighs and penises. We do not deny that some mantras in Rgveda might use the thigh euphemistically for genitalia. This particular mantra however has no such connotations, and like many other Vedic references provided by Courtright in his book, this one is also dubious.
- �Ganesa�, p. 9
- TB = Taittiriya Brahmana according to the list of abbreviations given at the beginning of the book.
- �Ganesa�, p. 9
- Popularly known as �Vaidik Padanukrama Kosha�. The concordance does miss out some occurrence of words in the Vedic texts occasionally and therefore we checked the entire original text of the Taittiriya Brahmana, but without success.
- Louis Renou, �Note sur les origines v�diques de Ganeśa�, in Journal Asiatique, vol. 229 (April-June 1937), p. 271-274
- �Ganesa�, pp. 9
- Brahmavaivarta Purana 3.44.83 seems to indicate that Ganesha is known in the Vedas as ekadanta, by which name the devatas worship him. This seems to be a reference to mantras such as the one in Taittiriya Aranyaka cited by Courtright.
- The father of Ganesa
- The mount of Siva
- For Taittiriya Aranyaka, Book X (= Mahanarayana Upanishad), we have used �Mahanarayana Upanisad� edited by Swami Vimalananda (1957), Ramakrishna Math (Madras). In this edition, the Ganesa or Vighnesvara Gayatri occurs as Taittiriya Aranyaka X.1.24. The mantra reads -�tatpurushaaya vidmaye vakratundaaya dhiimahi tanno dantih pracodayaat �
- Courtight also notes that the word �hastimukhaaya� occurs in the Maitrayani Samhita of Yajurveda. However, he neither gives the address of the mantra in that samhita, not does he attempt to relate it to the corresponding mantra in Taittiriya Aranyaka that he discusses a few sentences later.
- �Ganesa�, p. 121
- Cited by Courtright himself in this context.
- �Ganesa�, p. 101
- �Ganesa�, p. viii
- As far as the Vedic tradition is concerned, the whole of north India north of Narmada river, is dominated by Brahmins following Sukla Yajurveda in its Madhyandina Sakha. Followers of Kanva Sakha of Sukla Yajurveda are found in significant numbers in several other parts of India such as Orissa and Maharashtra. Both these Sakhas employ the Paraskara Grhyasutra as their principal ritual text for domestic rites. In the past, a Baijavapa Grhyasutra existed for other followers of Sukla Yajurveda, but this text is now lost. Likewise, the Kanva Grhyasutra and Katyayana Grhyasutra exist, but very few followers of Sukla Yajurveda follow them today. Amongst the commentaries of this text are: Paraskara Mantrabhashya of Murari Mishra, Bhashya of Halayudha, Bhashya of Harihara, Bhashya of Jayarama, Bhashya of Gadaadhara, Vivarana of Karka, Bhashya of Vishveshara, Prakaashika of Vishvanatha etc.
- This is text 2.2.12 in the edition used by us. See the footnote below for details of this edition by Bakre. In fact, Courtright seems to have made another typing error here because Oldenberg�s edition that Courtright has used also gives the address of this text as 2.2.12 and not 2.2.14
- Hermann Oldenberg (Translator). 1964 . Sacred Books of the East Series, volume 29 (Grihya Sutras, Part I), p. 309
- Mahadeva Ganghadhar Bakre (ed.). 1982. Grihya-Sutra by Paraskar with Five Commentaries of Karka Upadhyaya, Jayaram, Harihar, Gadadhar and Vishvanath. Munsihram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.: New Delhi, pp. 197-206
- See for instance Raj Bali PANDEY�s �Hindu Samskaras, Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments�, Motilal Banarsidass: New Delhi (1969), pp. 134-135
- Harihara on Paraskara Grhyasutra 2.2.14 cites �diirghasatram vaa esha upaiti yo brahmacharyamupaiti�
- Courtright, Paul Barber. 1974. Ganesa and the Ganesa Festival in Maharashtra, A Study in Hindu Religious Celebration. Princeton University PhD Thesis. p. 26
- �Ganesa�, p. 22
- �Ganesa�, p. 29
- �Ganesa�, pp. 53
- Kurma Purana 2.37.40
- Kurma Purana 2.37.41
- �Ganesa�, p. 92
- Kurma Purana 1.14.71
- Kurma Purana 1.14.71-73
- The reconciliatory attitude of the Kurma Purana is also evident from the fact that although it is named after an incarnation of Lord Visnu, it is predominantly Saivite in flavor. Embedded in the Purana is the beautiful Isvaragita, which is largely a Saivite retelling of the Bhagavadgita.
- The episode is taken as an example of how God�s mercy is showered even on his four-legged devotees, and not just on human beings, who should therefore make good use of their human birth and seek refuge in God without delay.
- �Ganesa�, pp. 39-40
- �Ganesa�, p. 40
- In fact, the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary apparently uses this very verse to support its translation of �madacyut� into �elephant in rut�.
- �Ganesa�, p. 29 Courtright states correctly that �The ichor, a thick sap like secretion oozing from the elephant�s temples during the season of mating, is a pervasive symbol of elixir of erotic desire that intoxicates the bees buzzing around it so that they foolishly cast aside and disregard all risks�
- Page 129 in David Shulman, �Remaking a Purana�, pp. 121-157 in Wendy Doniger. Ed. (1993), Purana Perennis, Albany: SUNY
- The story of the previous life of alligator comes later in the Purana, not in chapters 2-3 in the 8thskandha of the text, as Courtright seeks to convey.
- �Ganesa�, pp. 40
- �Ganesa�, p. 37. Note that he puts the words �in the manner of a mere beast� in double quotes, implying that this is a direct quote from the text, or at least a close paraphrase. We will show later that these words are perhaps taken without attribution from an earlier book by Wendy Doniger.
- �Ganesa�, pp. 37
- This interpretation is supported by the slightly different and expanded version of the same story occurring in the Mahabhagavata Upapurana, a text that is different from the (Vaishnava) Bhagavata Purana and the Devibhagavata Purana. In this Purana, the Devi appears for Daksa�s grand sacrifice in the form resembling that of Ma Kali. Daksa is infuriated and embarrassed at his daughter�s horrific form, and says that she has also become uncouth in the company of her husband Shiva. The Devi realizes that Daksa, her father, who had worshipped her in the past in the form of Kali, and her begged her to take birth in his own home, is not her devotee any longer and worships her external form more than her internal essence. The Devi then destroys her body, that was born of Daksa, because she will not tolerate insult to Shiva and also in order to crush Daksa�s pride based on the outer form of the human body.
- �Ganesa�, p. 37
- �Ganesa�, p. 136
- �Ganesa�, pp. 134-135
- For historically more sound analysis of the transformation of Ganesa from Kalpasutras to Puranas, refer A. K. Narain�s contribution (pp. 19-48) in 115-139 in Robert L. Brown, �Ganesa, Studies of an Asian God��, SUNY, Albany (1991)
- �Ganesa�, p. 57
- �Ganesa�, p. 49
- Unfortunately, psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar uses this dubious, non-attested tale for constructing his own theories, and attributes it to the Varaha Purana as well. He does not give its address in the Purana text, and his version is only slightly different from the one cited by Courtright. See Sudhir Kakar, 2001, The Essential Writings of Sudhir Kakar, OUP: New Delhi, p. 49
- This a classic example of how a lie when repeated a hundred times comes to be taken as axiomatic truth.
- Ganesa Purana, Upasana Khanda, 12.38 This is an important detail, because Courtright cites numerous passages from the Puranas describing sexuality of Airavata. If Airavata is intimidated by Ganesa, then the latter�s trunk should be considered more potent than Airavata�s per Courtright�s �methodology�. Earlier, we had cited other passages from Ganesa Purana which depict Ganesa showering water with his trunk over Brahma�s head.
- �Ganesa�, pp. 116-117
- �Ganesa�, p. 159
- �Ganesa�, p. 159 Even these generalizations are invalid in view of the data available from various Ganapatya Minor Upanishads, and the Mudgala Purana � texts that are practically ignored by Courtright.
- See Saligrama Krishna Ramachandra Rao, 1992, Ganesa-kosha, Kalpataru Research Academy: Bangalore, pp. 70-131 for this aspect of the deity.
- Pp. 90-93 in Rao, 1992. In addition, Vinayakar Akaval, a Tamil devotional work (before 1400 CE?) sees Ganesa not as an external deity but rather as an internal devata in the muulaadhaara.
- �Ganesa�, pp. 74-90
- Brahmavaivarta Purana, Ganapatikhanda, chapter 44, verse 88
- For instance, on p. 19 of his thesis he claims � �Gan,eśa is conspicuously absent in the two oldest Purān,as, the Matsyapūran,a (sic!) and the Vayupurān,a (sic!), and in the explicitly sectarian Vais,n,avite Bhāgavatapurān,a. Although he does appear in the remaining fifteen of the eighteen Māhapurān,as (sic!), he does not figure prominently in any of them. His character in all of his Puranic appearances is markedly similar.�
- This claim is wrong. For instance, we may point out that the story of Ganesa is narrated in brief in Matsyapurana 154.495-505, and the deity is also mentioned in chapter 260 as the husband of Rddhi and Siddhi. Ganesa does figure prominently in the Brahmavaivarta Purana, a Mahapurana, which has an entire portion titled �Ganapatikhanda� containing 46 chapters.