On Puritanism, Sex Addicts and Temples
Just finished reading Oh, But You Do Get It Wrong! by Aditi Banerjee …a commendable analysis of Wendy Donger’s prejudices and liberties with truth. I’m reproducing excerpts below. The full article is also available for download from my Docs and Slides widget on the Links page.
*** Excerpts from “Oh, But You Do Get It Wrong!” ***
…Defamation of Critics
The introduction to the interview begins with a misleading quote:
“[Doniger] has continued to infuriate the Hindutva brigade with her unorthodox views on Hinduism and its sacred texts, earning for herself the epithet: “crude, lewd and very rude in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit academics.”
The quote attributed to the “Hindutva brigade” is actually from the BBC web site…
The false attribution of this quote to the “Hindutva brigade” sets the tone for the rest of the interview—heaping blame on a nebulous, undefined, straw man “Hindutva Internet Brigade” for the whole continuum of criticism of Doniger’s work—criticism that has come mostly from moderate and liberal Hindus, secularists, non-Hindu scholars and even one prominent Harvard Indologist who is not known for being friendly towards Hindus. Rather than confront the actual criticisms, Doniger pretends that her only critics are Hindu extremists, and by rebuking this “enemy” she tries to deflect any criticism of her work.
Just as some politicians resort to picking on their weakest critic to discredit all of their critics, Doniger picks one stray comment on the Amazon web site to characterize all of her critics—when asked to describe the Hindu-American response to her book, Doniger exclaims, “My favourite one on Amazon accuses me of being a Christian fundamentalist and my book a defence of Christianity against Hinduism. And of course, I’m not a Christian, I’m a Jew!”
…Doniger’s refusal to address her critics only worsens as the interview proceeds. When asked why Hindus object to her writings, she flippantly replies:
You’ll have to ask them why. It doesn’t seem to me to have much to do with the book. They don’t say, “Look here, you said this on page 200, and that’s a terrible thing to say.” Instead, they say things not related to the book: you hate Hindus, you are sex-obsessed, you don’t know anything about the Hindus, you got it all wrong.
This is a bald lie. The first Part of the book, Invading the Sacred, documents and refutes dozens of statements by Doniger…
…Moreover, the idea that “it’s considered unseemly in the conservative Hindu view for a woman to talk about sex–that’s something men talk about among themselves” is another blatantly false stereotype by Doniger.
Doniger’s contention that traditional Hindu women are not allowed to talk about sex is directly refuted by the celebrated account of the debate between Ubhaya-Bharati and Adi Shankara, one of the great intellects of the world, sage from the 8th Century CE, and father of Advaita Vedanta as known today. Adi Shankara was challenged to a debate by Mandana Misra, a learned and well-known Purva Mimamsa scholar. They agreed that Mandana’s wife, Ubhaya-Bharati, a renowned scholar in her own right, would be the referee and that the loser of the debate would become the disciple of the winner. After debating for many days, Mandana Misra lost and was about to become the disciple of Adi Shankara. However, Ubhaya-Bharati then challenged Adi Shankara to debate her, on the grounds that since she and her husband were one person upon being married, he would have to defeat both of them in order to win the debate.
Adi Shankara accepted her challenge. The debate went well for Adi Shankara until Ubhaya-Bharati began posing intricate questions on the science of erotics (well-accepted, in the appropriate context, as a topic of sacred discourse and knowledge in Hinduism). If it was “considered unseemly” per traditional Hinduism for women to talk about sex, the official version of the Shankara Digvijaya (accepted as authentic by the Sringeri Shankaracharya Matha) would never have mentioned Ubhaya-Bharati’s questioning of Adi Shankara. (Adi Shankara ended up satisfactorily answering the questions on eroticism, and Ubhaya-Bharati accepted her defeat.)
There is also the celebrated account given in the Yoga Vasistha of Queen Chudalai, an advanced yogini, who initiates her husband, King Sikhidvaja, as her disciple; she tests his renunciation repeatedly and instructs him on the proper attitude towards sexual union and sensual pleasure. Similarly, the famous Tripura Rahasya narrates Princess Hemalata’s initiation of her husband, Prince Hemachuda, into the secrets of samadhi and moksha. Finally, the Mahabharata recounts the famous interaction between Arjuna and Urvashi—when Arjuna rejected Urvashi’s frank invitation for sexual union, she pronounced the following curse: “Since thou disregardest a woman come to thy mansion … of her own motion—a woman, besides, who is pierced by the shafts of Kama, therefore, O Partha, thou shalt have to pass thy time among females … destitute of manhood and scorned as a eunuch.”
As these examples show, not only were women allowed to discuss sex, they had the authority and scriptural and social standing to challenge and teach the greatest of sages and the most royal of men with respect to all subject matters, including sex and eroticism.
Of course, it is unfortunate that the puritanical mores of Victorian British rule have corrupted modern Hindu society, restricting the open acceptance of sex and sexuality. However, the holistic acceptance of sex and sexuality (without gender or orientation bias) inherent to Hinduism is still vibrant and alive in traditional Hinduism.
Apart from unfairly stereotyping and insulting her critics, most of the rest of the interview concerns Doniger’s take on the Valmiki Ramayana.
The “Interpolation” of Ravana’s Curse
According to Doniger:
Things were added on in Ramayana’s first and seventh book later on. For instance, in the seventh book we have a story long before the story of Rama and Sita about how Ravana raped one of the great apsaras, Rambha … [Her husband] curses Ravana that if he ever touches a woman against her will, his head will shatter into a thousand pieces. So that story is then told in the Ramayana to explain why Ravana didn’t force himself on Sita despite keeping her in his house all those years. In the earlier Ramayana, there’s nothing about this … This is a later idea that creeps in.”
It is incorrect for Doniger to say that the curse upon Ravana was a “later idea that [crept in]” to explain Ravana’s unwillingness to rape Sita. The relevant incident is found in Book 6 (Yuddha Kanda), almost universally recognized as part of the original Valmiki Ramayana. (It is the first part of Book 1 (Bala Kanda) and all of Book 7 (Uttara Kanda) that are, debatably, later interpolations.)
The account is given by Ravana in Sarga (Canto) 13 of Book 6 (Yuddha Kanda):
Once I beheld (a celestial nymph) Punjikasthala (by name) … She was stripped of her garment and ravished by me. She then reached the abode of Brahma … Highly enraged, the creator forthwith addressed the following words to me: “If you (happen to) violate any other woman hence forward, your head will be forthwith split into a hundred pieces; there is no doubt about it.” Hence, afraid (as I am) of his curse, I do not violently put Sita, a princess of the Videha territory, on my charming bed by force. 
There is an account of Ravana’s rape of Rambha in Book 7 (Uttara Kanda)—but it is the incident recounted in Book 6 (accepted as part of the original Valmiki Ramayana) that is explicitly offered as the reason why Ravana did not rape Sita. The effect of the rape of Rambha is more generic: “[Ravana] felt inclined no more to copulate with women who were unwilling to approach him.” 
This is not mere nitpicking—the citation of the rape of Punjikasthala in Book 6 discredits Doniger’s contention that the curse on Ravana was a later interpolation interjected to conveniently explain why Ravana never raped Sita.
Rama as a “Sex-Addict”
According to Doniger, the concept of a “sex-addict” is introduced into the Valmiki Ramayana by Lakshmana calling Dasaratha kama-sakta, which she defines as “hopelessly attached to lust.”
It is not clear where Doniger picks up the term ‘kama-sakta’—the term does not appear upon a search of the text of the Valmiki Ramayana as given in the Titus online database, which is based on the following version of the text: G.H. Bhatt e.a., The Valmiki Ramayana, (Baroda 1960-1975), prepared by Muneo Tokunaga, March 12, 1993 (adaptations by John D. Smith, Cambridge, 1995.)
Further, neither the term nor its variants appear in the most logical place where Lakshmana would have used the words to describe Dasaratha, the passage in Book 2 (Ayodhya Kanda) when Lakshmana disparages the character of Dasaratha for banishing Rama. The relevant phrases that Lakshmana uses here are the following: nripah vipariitasheha (king with perverted mind), pradharshhitaH vishhayaiH (who is outraged by sensual enjoyments) and samanimadhaH (who is possessed of passion).  None of these terms translates even remotely as “sex addict / addiction”. Addiction is something more than just being overcome by lust: addiction is a “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance…characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.” 
However, for the sake of argument, I will give the benefit of the doubt to Doniger and assume that the term kama-sakta has been used by Lakshmana to describe Dasaratha in the Valmiki-Ramayana. That in and of itself does not imply that Dasaratha was “hopelessly addicted to lust.” Kama-sakta simply means an attachment (sakta) to desire (kama). Kama does not itself necessarily refer to sexual desire, or even erotic or romantic desire. Dasaratha’s reluctance to allow Rama to serve as guard over Vishwamitra’s yajna, for example, or Lakshmana’s unwillingness to be parted from Rama, could equally be characterized as kama-sakta. To assume it to mean “attachment to lust” is another in a pattern of Doniger’s ex-cathedra translations in variance with traditional Sanskrit nirukta (etymology) for which she has been repudiated before.
It has been brought to my attention that, subsequent to the original interview, as published in print and on this website, Doniger’s statements were corrected to carry the following version of Doniger’s quote on October 20: “Lakshman is the one who actually says it. He says the king is hopelessly attached to sensual objects. But Rama himself says (at 2.47.8) that the king is kama-atma, entirely consumed by kama.” The deletion of the term kama-sakta and the addition of the new reference is not explained, other than as a “typo”.
To offer Doniger leeway that she almost never offers her critics, I will accept the “corrected” statement—but her argument still fails. The relevant reference—found in Sarga 53 of the Gita Press, Gorakhpur version and in Sarga 47 of the Titus database version (mentioned above)—is part of a scene where Rama reminisces about his father to Lakshmana during the first night of his banishment from Ayodhya. Here is the exact reference:
anaathaH caiva vRiddhaH ca mayaa caiva vinaakRitaH | kim kariSyati kaama aatmaa kaikeyyaa vasham aagataH ||
vRiddhascha (aged); anaathashcha ((and therefore) helpless); mayaarinaacha (deprived of my presence); kim karishhyati (what will he do); kRitaH (dominated as he is); kaamaatmaa (by his passion (for Kaikeyi)); aagataH (and who has fallen); kaikeyiivasham (into clutches of Kaikeyi).
“Aged and (therefore) helpless, deprived of my presence, what will he do, dominated as he is by his passion for Kaikeyi and who has fallen into the clutches of Kaikeyi.”
As with the phrases described above (uttered by Lakshmana in anger), Kama-atma does not necessarily mean “entirely consumed by kama.” For example, the illustrious commentary on the Ramayana by Sivasahaya, Raamayana Siromani¸ gives the following example of using the term kama-atma in a non-sexual context: kaama aathmaa: kaama – abhishEka vishayiNi ichchhaa (desiring the matter of crowning) aathmaa – aathmani manasyEva yasya sah (one who had this in mind)—i.e., “the king who desired in his mind the crowning [of Rama].” 
In any case, it is not necessary to get entangled into the technicality of semantics to challenge Doniger’s central thesis, which is summarized in the following excerpt from the interview:
You also suggest that because Rama is afraid of turning into a sex addict like his father, he throws Sita out after enjoying sex with her?
You have a chapter in Valmiki’s Ramayana where Rama was so happy with Sita, they drank wine together, they were alone, enjoying themselves in every way, indulging in various ways, not just the sexual act. And in the very next chapter he says I’ve got to throw you out. So I’m suggesting: what is the connection between those two things? And what does it mean that Rama knows that Dasaratha, his father, disgraced himself because of his attachment to his young and beautiful wife. So I’m taking pieces of the Ramayana and putting them together and saying these are not disconnected.
So you are saying his fear of following in his father’s footsteps is making him betray his own sexuality?
Yes, I am. Or even of being perceived that way.
Note the internal contradiction in Doniger’s position—her characterization of Rama hinges on a passage found in Book 7 (Uttara Kanda), and she has elsewhere in the interview dismissed that same Book 7 as a later interpolation!
In any event, the passage describing Rama and Sita’s “indulgence” is from Sarga 42 of Book 7 (Uttara Kanda), where Rama and Sita are enjoying their reunion after Sita’s abduction. As described therein, during this period of two winters (i.e., two years, although in some versions, an additional half-shloka is included providing that this interlude lasted 10,000 years), Rama and Sita would spend the second half of every day together in Rama’s Ashoka-grove, enjoying heavenly music and dance and partaking of gourmet food and intoxicating drinks. Rama and Sita are compared to other divine couples:
Taking in his hand the pure nectar of flowers as intoxicating as the Maireyaka wine, Sri Rama … made Sri Sita drink it, just as Indra does Sachi … Seated in the company of the celebrated Sita, [Rama] shone with splendour like Vasishta seated along with Arundhati. Sri Rama, steeped in joy like gods, afforded delight thus day after day to … Sita, who resembled a divine damsel. 
Doniger conveniently leaves out the fact that it is in this chapter that Rama discovers that Sita is pregnant. Delighted at this revelation, Rama asks her to tell him which desire of hers he should fulfil. This is Sita’s response: “O Raghava! I wish to visit the holy penance-groves and to stay, O Lord!, at the feet of sages … living on the banks of the Ganga … This is my greatest wish that I should stay even for one night in the penance-grove of those who live only on fruits and (edible) roots.”  Rama readily acquiesces to this wish, promising that she will be taken for a visit there the very next day.
Doniger claims that “in the very next chapter [Rama] says [to Sita] I’ve got to throw you out.” This is another totally false statement by Doniger. It is in Sarga 45 (after two intervening sargas / chapters, wherein Rama learns of the negative gossip surrounding Sita and thus decides to banish her) that Rama orders Lakshmana to take Sita to the forest and leave her there. This is just one more instance of Doniger’s casual disregard of the facts, unbecoming of a distinguished professor with a named chair at the University of Chicago.
Of course, it is the two sargas / chapters that Doniger skips over in her “alternative” narrative that provide the reason for Rama banishing Sita: Rama is informed that he is being rebuked by the people of Ayodhya as follows: “Why does not Sri Rama censure [Sita], who formerly had been forcibly carried away by Ravana? … Such conduct of our wives shall have to be suffered by us also, since whatever a king does, the subjects follow.”  The pernicious rumours are about Sita’s chastity / purity, not about Rama’s excessive lust.
When this gossip is confirmed by others, Rama summons his brothers to him, and informs them of his decision to leave Sita, providing the following explanation for his decision: “As long as the word of infamy circulates, so long one does fall in the lower regions (hell). Infamy is censured even by the gods and fame gains credence in the world.”  It is the fear of losing his good name (as the result of the infamy surrounding Sita’s chastity by the gossip-mongers of Ayodhya) that impels Rama, not fear of being chastised as a sex-addict.
Nowhere is it mentioned that Rama feared he might fall victim to the “vice” of sex and that he therefore abandoned Sita – this again appears to be an example of the kind of fanciful creation for which Doniger and many of her students, now academicians at leading American universities, have become well-known. There is no connotation of illicit or excessive indulgence in the description of Rama and Sita’s blissful interlude together in Sarga 42—to the contrary, Rama and Sita are depicted as a divine couple with the dignity and radiance of Indra and Sachi, Vasishta and Arundhati. Rama is full of tenderness for Sita upon discovering her pregnancy. It clearly breaks his heart to send Sita away—after giving Lakshmana the command, “[Rama] the noble one with His eyes closed, taking leave of His brothers, entered His own apartment, with his heart agitated by sorrow, deeply sighed as an elephant.” 
Construction of Hindu Temples
Doniger suggests that Hindus did not have a prominent temple-building movement—because building temples requires “a lot of money, land, a whole system of building temples, which the Hindus did not have at first”—until the Bhakti movement gathered momentum “to organize Rama or Shiva worship.” She makes a superfluous reference to the fact that the Kama Sutra does not discuss temple worship—one wonders why the Kama Sutra would be a relevant reference for discussion of temple construction…
This is really the topic for another article, but it is worth quickly noting here that the Sathapatha Brahmana portion of the Shukla Yajur Veda, dating back to at least 1500 BCE, describes a special form of tabernacle, distinct from the Agni-shala of the household, for which a special fire-priest, the Agnidhra, was designated. Through the kindling of the fire, the tabernacle became the dwelling place of the Vishvedevas (all the gods). This is a prototype for later Hindu temples, where icons replaced the sacred fire as the focus of worship. In other words, if one wants to be polemical, one can definitely argue that the genesis of formal temple construction vidhis – rules and methods – certainly pre-dates the advent of Buddhism.
Further, details of (at least Vaishnava) temple construction, the consecration of images for worship, and the actual procedures and rituals for temple worship are set forth in the ancient Vaikhanasa and Paancharatra Agamas. The Vaikhanasa Agama dates back to at least the 3rd or 4th century CE, and its Kriyaa Paadha discusses temple construction and image consecration while its Charyaa Padhaa focuses on the associated rituals of worship.
There are many examples of temples from these ancient times. A few are quickly identified here: The early phase of Chalukyan temple building began in the last quarter of the 6th century and resulted in many cave temples, including a Vaishnava temple dating back to 578 CE. The second phase of Chalukyan temple building at Aihole, celebrated as one of the cradles of Indian temple architecture, dates back to approximately 600 CE. Similarly, the Pallavas constructed rock-cut temples dating from 610–690 AD and structural temples between 690–900 AD, including the rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram, the Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram, and the Shore Temple built by Narasimhavarman II.