A book under attack in India

Wendy Doniger's 'Hindus, an Alternative History' was withdrawn recently because it violated India's blasphemy law

A book under attack in India
Almost a decade ago, the famed British writer and historian William Dalrymple, in an essay in The New York Review of Books, observed that a battle was in progress among Indians and expatriates on one side and right-wing Hindu fundamentalists on the other about reinterpreting ancient Indian history.  And, instead of remaining a polemical exercise, confined to halls of superior learning, it had morphed into “the subject of political rallies and mob riots.”  Historically, the discourse has been driven by two rival factions, the liberal and enlightened who would like to see the country remain an inclusive, pluralistic and tolerant society, consistent with its long traditions, and Hindu fundamentalists who perceived Hindu culture and religion as the overwhelming, dominant narrative.  Progressively, passages in text books that emphasized India’s cultural diversity, syncretism and inclusiveness have been removed under pressure from proponents of Hindutva (Hinduness), who threaten to cleanse all books of the material that in their judgment denigrates Hinduism.

In his dissertation, Dalrymple cited several cases of violent protests, specifically ones which erupted in 2004 at the prestigious Oriental Research Institute in Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, against a book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, authored by James Laine, a professor at Manchester College in Minnesota. Laine had suggested that the guerrillas Maratha leader (1627-1680), greatly revered by many Hindus, might have been the biological child of his guardian, Dadaji Konddev,  not his father, since Shivaji’s parents  had lived apart for most his life. The implication that Shivaji might have been an illegitimate child touched off violent protests. Dalrymple described the angry scene at Pune: “the militants overturned the library shelves and for the next few hours, kicked around the books and danced on them, damaging 18,000 volumes.”

In the face of mounting agitation, Laine was forced to apologize and the book was withdrawn in India by the publishers, Oxford University Press. Most liberal newspapers in India, however, denounced the withdrawal, characterizing it as capitulation to zealots and Talibanization of India, reminiscent of demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhists statues in Afghanistan in 2001 by the Taliban. The influential newspaper, The Indian Express, commented, “We cannot have the mob write our history for us.”

Protests against a book are once again much in the news in India and among Indians abroad. Penguin Books, India, was forced last month to withdraw the book, Hindus, an Alternative History, authored by Wendy Doniger, a highly respected American scholar of Hinduism and history of religion at the University of Chicago. The move has revived memories of the withdrawal of the Laine’s book almost a decade ago.

[quote]Passages in textbooks that emphasized India's cultural diversity have been removed under pressure from proponents of Hindutva[/quote]

Doniger’s voluminous, 700-page book deals with Hindu philosophy, mythology, Gods and Goddesses; but, somewhat unexpectedly, it also has chapters relating to religious dialogue and tolerance under the Mughal rulers and the reforms instituted during the British Raj. It was released in 2009 by Penguin Books, received some excellent reviews from international literary magazines and soon climbed to the best seller list.  However, there has been a simmering campaign against the book ever since its release. Recently, a retired Indian school teacher, Mr Dinanath Batra, brought a lawsuit against it, supported by Hindu conservative religious organizations, contending that it violated India’s blasphemy laws that made it a crime to offend the religious sensibilities of any person. The court agreed and the publishers opted not to pursue the case, withdrawing all unsold copies of the book.

The capitulation by the publishers spawned strong reaction. Some famous writers and artists in India and abroad expressed concern about the gratuitous application of the blasphemy law to restrict freedom of expression of writers and artists. Most prominent among them is Arundhati Roy, the intrepid writer who won international fame and recognition for her novel, “The God of Small Things.” In an open letter, she expressed her shock at the decision made by Penguin Books, India. Some national newspapers also expressed disapproval at the censorship. The Times of India, in its editorial on February 13, 2014, wrote: “withdrawal of Doniger book highlights sway of Taliban-like forces in India.  If we go down the path of hurt sentiments and incentivizing professional offence takers, we will soon have no defense left against the radicalism tearing Pakistan apart.”

Wendy Doniger
Wendy Doniger

What exactly is the objection of the right-wing Hindu organizations against the book?  The author, Doniger, is a celebrated scholar of the Hindu religion, holds double doctorate degrees in Sanskrit and Indian studies from Harvard and Oxford Universities. She has written a number of books about Hinduism, translated Sanskrit texts, and has also evoked ineluctable controversy. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times (March 6, 2014), under the title, Banned in Bangalore, she responds to the controversy swirling around her book.  Her detractors claim, she explained, that the book was written with missionary-like zeal and had excessive erotic overtones, designed to reflect Hinduism in a poor light.

Doniger propounds the thesis that Hinduism, as presented today, is a sanitized adaptation of the authentic Hinduism which British scholars and Victorian protestant missionaries in colonial India crafted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were profoundly uncomfortable with esoteric polytheism and erotic sculptures and proceeded to synthesize their own version of the religion, referred to as Sanatana Dharma. It was heavily drawn from Sanskrit texts and based on transcendental philosophy and established ancient practices such as meditation.  In this endeavor, according to Doniger, they found willing partners: liberal, westernized Hindus elites, who adopted it enthusiastically.  She argues that “the poems and songs that imagine the god as lover, like the exquisite statues of goddesses, are a vital part of the religion of those who did not cave under the colonial scorn. She maintains that she is resurrecting the authentic version that is grounded into many traditions and folk practices of India.

The controversy in India raises a delicate question with universal applicability; what is the appropriate balance between the freedom of expression of writers, poets and practitioners of the fine arts, and the rights of the public to be protected from material offensive to their religious beliefs. It would be hypocritical to pretend that the problem of blasphemy is peculiar to India. Pakistan, in particular, has seen numerous cases where the blasphemy law has be egregiously abused and public anger aroused by false rumors. However, proscription of even offensive books might be impossible in this age of the internet and proliferation of social media outlets, as books are always accessible as e-books. The most effective response in such cases might be another book that rebuts the material in the first book.

Experience has shown that violent demonstrations against a book are often of immense benefit to the author, as the free publicity generated drives up books sales astronomically. The word-wide protests against the disreputable book, Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie and the Fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini, made the book an instant best seller, making the author a multimillionaire, bringing him undeserved fame and recognition. It is most unlikely that any of it would have happened in the absence of the religious edict against him.