Friday, October 20, 2006

Prejudice most Pernicious

In 1927, an American author named Katherine Mayo published a book titled “Mother India.”

Translated into several languages, it served as the definitive sourcebook on India right up to the 1970’s, when it reportedly was required reading for Peace Corps volunteers. The book attributes all the prevalent social evils of the time, including child marriage and lack of proper hygiene – to Hinduism!

Mrinalini Sinha’s new book “Specters of Mother India – the Global Restructuring of an Empire”–

reminds us that Mayo summed up India as a nation with
an oversexed Hindu culture, manifest in practices such as early marriage, masturbation and homosexuality.”

Mayo’s grotesque accounts of alleged “Hindu” sexual practices kept her book on the bestseller lists for almost three decades after it was published.

When I read a review of Sinha’s book by Arthur J. Pais (India Abroad, August 18, 2006) I wondered what good would it would do to exhume Memories of Racists past, except to kindle the fire of unresolved injury among Indians..

That is, until I happened upon an essay on Hindu temple erotica in the Times Online, mystifyingly published under the section “Science Notebook.” And I realized instantly that Mayo's relevance is timeless.

The essay, titled “Why is a Hindu Temple Like a Soho Phone Booth? Must I Draw You a Picture?” is by Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, U.K.
A frequent contributor to the Times’ Science Notebook column ( though mercifully, not a frequent commentator on matters Indian) Dr. Kealey is a clinical biochemist. His areas of expertise are stated as "hair, skin, acne" and "the economics of science and higher education" on his personal webpage accessible through University of Buckingham's "Directory of Experts." He has authored four books.

Access the full article here :,,6-2362622,00.html

Pithy and Pertinent Sayings:
Education … has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.
G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962) British historian

The vanity of teaching doth oft tempt a man to forget that he is a blockhead.
George Saville, Marquis of Hallifax (1633-1695) English statesman and essayist.

I wrote a scathing commentary on the Times article which I subsequently sent directly to Dr. Kealey. I will post excerpts from my email exchanges with him in my next blog entry, but first, here are some general thoughts.

The first thing that will hit you when you read Dr. Kealey’s imaginative essay, is that though Katherine Mayo’s name and presence are long gone, her spirit never did depart. Eight decades have dissolved since her book was written. And yet, the attitude she epitomized lives on by assimilation and self-replication -- much like the Voldemort character from the Harry Potter series.

What makes this essay particularly striking is the social context in which it appears. According to the 2001 census in U.K., ethnic minorities constituted approximately 8 percent of the nation’s total population of 58.8 million. Of those, Indians were the largest minority community at 985,000. The U.K. census points out that Indians are the most religiously diverse among minority communities. This is how their religious identities break down: Christians, 5 percent; Muslim, 13 percent; Sikh, 29 percent ; and Hindu, 45 percent.


This means is that at last count there were around 443,250 Hindus in the United Kingdom.

Not only has there been a sizeable increase in the Indian presence, but academically, socially and professionally, Indians are for the most part a visible and well respected community, frequently recognized for some noteworthy contribution or the other.
But neither increased visibility nor prestige empowers Indians to reverse the macular degeneration of certain academics with respect to Hinduism.

As a community, it seems to me that we oscillate between extremes of apathetic inaction and destructive self-criticism. Apathy ought not to be confused with detachment, because a commitment to action can be made with detachment: That, in fact is a core Hindu ideal.

Collective identity begins with the individual. One can stand up for one’s community whether or not one is religious. For that matter I sometimes find myself standing up for other religions, depending on the issue -- as I did when the controversy over Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photograph first broke in 1989.

I saw the same empathy and reproach in some of the published online responses from non-Indians to Dr. Kealey's non-erudite expectorations. It's good to know that basic decency can override tribal affiliation – if one allows it to. It wouldn't hurt more Indians to keep that in mind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Re Prejudice most Pernicious... I consider myself educated but I had no idea of Ms. Mayo's contribution to the West's idea of Hinduism. For too long we have let non-Hindus define Hinduism. It is great to see that we will have someone as articulate,intelligent and thoughtful as Chitra to make us think,learn and contribute.