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Knowledge of the Guru

In response to:

Blissing Out in Houston from the December 13, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

In the recent article on Guru Maharaj Ji by Francine du Plessix Gray it was noted that: “At the restaurant, Rennie eats his vegetarian meal with his left hand, Indian fashion, deftly cupping the food with his fingers” (NYR December 13). Perhaps it will interest your readers that although in India people do eat with their fingers, one of the most serious taboos is against touching cooked food with the left hand. This injunction applies with equal force to those unfortunate awkward souls who happen to have been born left-handed, as we surmise was the case with Mr. Davis. The simple and most basic reason for this custom is that the left hand is reserved for toilet functions, and is hence considered both hygienically and ritually unclean. A similarly profound lack of familiarity with Indian culture and religion is manifest throughout the article. It is sad that the authenticity of such a fascinating critique, one which purports to attack precisely those elements which have been superficially abstracted out of the Indian context, should be rendered doubtful by so sinister a breach of scholarship.

Nicholas B. Dirks

Department of South Asian History

Charles R.D. Lindley

Department of South Asian Languages

Leela A. Wood

Department of English

The University of Chicago

Francine du Plessix Gray replies:

The syntax of the sentence quoted above was addressed to the fact that eating food with a cupped hand is an Indian custom, not eating food with the left hand. I am sorry that a grammatical misunderstanding has led to an ass-wiping controversy. I am even sorrier that a grave cultural misunderstanding seems to prevail among members of the Divine Light Mission: I have seen many of them eating with a cupped left hand.

I find regrettable, however, my critics’ failure to offer other evidence of “a profound lack of familiarity with Indian culture and religion.” A detailed listing of these alleged breaches of scholarship would have been fairer than a blanket allegation, and also more educational to all concerned.

Ken Kelley replies:

Since Francine Gray and I collaborated closely on our reporting of the Millennium 73 I would like to add that throughout my stay at numerous Divine Light Mission Ashrams coast to coast, I have always seen devotees of the Maharaj Ji eating with their left hand. This perversion of a basic Indian custom is another evidence of his followers’ misunderstanding of Indian culture.

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