By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on The Guardian.
Penguin Books India has said this week that it will destroy all available copies of the 2009 book by the Indologist Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, as part of a court settlement. Following the book’s publication, Dinanath Batra of the Hindu group Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Campaign) filed a suit against the author and publisher for denigration of Hinduism. In the notice sent by his lawyer in 2010, Batra accused Doniger of “a shallow, distorted and non-serious presentation of Hinduism” which was “riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies”. This lackadaisical lawsuit should have been a footnote in the world of Indian letters. With Penguin’s decision to withdraw the book, it has become a full-blown scandal.
Doniger, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, is no stranger to this kind of controversy. Her studies of Hinduism have sought to recover the buried, heterodox Tantric tradition from under the weight of the orientalist’s favourite form of Hinduism – Vedanta. For European orientalists, Vedantism was the closest to their own monotheism – a set of faith practices bourgeois in their mood and conduct. Tantrism – with its impurities of sex and diet – seemed out of favour. Doniger and her collaborators sought to revive interest in Tantrism, for which they turned to new methods of interpretation, notably psychoanalysis.
Doniger’s book is part of this “alternative” history that seeks to explore the worlds of the dalits and women – outcasts at the bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. Out of the complexity of the myths, Doniger sought to provide a picture of tolerance amidst violence. It is ironic, then, that the court case accuses her of being anti-Hindu, when it is her work that has provided a fuller description of Hinduism.
The attack on books for being anti-Hindu began in the 1990s. Doniger’s student Jeffrey Kripal was taken to task for his suggestive Kali’s Child. In a foreword to that book, Doniger wrote that it would “delight many readers, infuriate others, and generate a great deal of creative controversy”. What she had in mind was “creative controversy” amongst Indologists. She could not have foreseen the calls for censorship and death threats that Kripal received.
By 1995, the Hindu right had emerged as a major political force in India, and in the west it had domiciled as a constituent part of multicultural society. Diasporic Hindus felt enraged that their “culture” was being denigrated, and they took offence at this through protest and the courts. The attack on Kripal was followed by criticism of Sarah Caldwell’s Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of Goddess Kali and Paul Courtright’s Ganesa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. Doniger had welcomed creative controversy, but what she got was something else. The attack was on the scholars themselves as much as on the scholarship, and there was little room for a serious discussion about the breadth of the Hindu tradition. The attackers wanted a Hinduism that had the qualities of a bourgeois religion. Sex, and homosexuality in particular, had to be expunged. It did not look good for the newly emergent Hindu right to be associated with a faith with dirt under its nails, and gods with sexual lives.
The full blast of the Hindu right’s tentacular organisations terrified Indian cultural institutions. Motilal Banarsidass, the publisher of Courtright’s book, withdrew it in 2003. The next year, the Hindu right government in the state of Maharashtra banned James Laine’s book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, after a violent attack at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for its association with the book. In 2006, the painter MF Husain fled India for Qatar after his show of nude Indian gods and goddesses was attacked for “hurting the sentiments of the people”. The laws leaned upon for all this are colonial creations, which were used in the 1930s against Max Wylie’s Hindu Heaven and Arthur Miles’ The Land of the Lingam. The British did not want to “hurt the sentiments” of the orthodox Brahmins so they disallowed any representation of Hinduism that gave voice to the untouchables, to women and to tribals. This old colonial legacy is now fully inhabited by the Hindu right.
Batra, who filed the suit, is a familiar character in Indian society. But this is no one-man mission. He is the head of the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, the educational arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the brains of the Hindu right. The spokesman of the Hindu right’s cultural wing, Prakash Sharma, called him a “senior and revered figure, who has always fought against elements that pollute the minds of our youth”.
The party of the Hindu right, BJP, believes that it will win the national elections this year, with its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi leading it to victory. Alongside the court cases of people such as Batra has been a chilling breeze through the media as owners have begun to cull editors who have been critical of Modi, notably Open Magazine’s Hartosh Singh Bal and television journalists Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghosh. It is in this context that Penguin decided to withdraw and pulp Doniger’s book. That Penguin did not fight the case says a great deal about the limitations of corporate commitment to freedom of speech.
Doniger has a real case here. Her book on other peoples’ myths is not an insult to religion but a tribute to its complexity. If we are no longer able to breathe in all of our traditions in order to exhale the best of our capabilities, we will become a desiccated civilisation. As Gandhi wrote in 1925: “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide.”