Doniger’s Hindus: Whose faith is it anyway? – Aseem Shukla

Dr. Aseem Shukla“Whether … a licentious foray into Hinduism studies is protected by free speech is not the question. Doniger can write and believe what she wishes. But Hindus are asking if publishers should bear responsiblity for copious factual and interpretive errors. This demand … to combat Doniger’s view of their religion cannot be reduced to an unhinged ban-the-book crusade. Asking a publisher to hold publishing of a book until errors are corrected carries strong … precedent.” – Dr. Aseem Shukla 

The Hindus: An Alternative HistoryHistory empowers and history emasculates. History, like art, is beautiful or odious to the beholder. There are winners and losers when history is assessed, and there are protagonists and antagonists. Historians recognize the onerous burden of their profession in these times when a spare use of the word “genocide” in the House of Representatives to describe events in Armenia decades ago led Turkey to recall its ambassador. And politics infuses the narratives of history. Anti-Semitism, Marxism, white supremacy, all are known to prejudice renditions of peoples, cultures and religions.

Historian Wendy Doniger, professor of the History of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, finds herself in the midst of a history book kerfufflle of her own [this essay was written in March 2010]. Doniger, long enjoying exalted status as the doyen of Hindu studies in the American academy, faces scrutiny now in an unfolding drama involving her latest book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. An online petition asking Penguin Press, the publishers of the book, to hold publication and demand revisions is approaching 10,000 signatures. And when the book was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, Hindu activists staged a rare protest outside the award ceremony [in March 2010]. The book did not win.

Hindus know that Doniger was derailed before. In 2003, Microsoft retracted a chapter on Hinduism written by Doniger for its online encyclopedia after a heavily publicized internet campaign protested factual and interpretive errors in her essay. In the end, a Hindu writer, providing the emic, or insider’s perspective, wrote an entry that depicted Hinduism in the light that practitioners would actually recognize.

This latest “alternative” history book was released [in 2009], but opposition has escalated after a newer edition was released in India [in 2010] and the book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award (she didn’t win).

Prof. Wendy DonigerThat there would be trouble was apparent right from the preface of her book. There, Doniger asserts that hers is not a history of how Hinduism is lived today, but rather offers a “narrative alternative” to the one found in Hinduism’s holiest scriptures. This 780-page tome is set as Doniger’s rendering of Hinduism’s history based–we are to assume–on her own interpretations of scripture, her own biases and inclinations. Infamous for her penchant to sexualize, eroticize and exoticise passages from some of the holiest Hindu epics and scriptures–often invoking a Freudian psychoanalytic lens–Doniger has been accused of knowingly polarizing and inflaming. She does not disappoint.

I revisit her work now not just because Doniger provokes so many of us in the Hindu American community. Doniger represents what many believe to be a fundamental flaw in the academic study of Hinduism: that Hindu studies is too often the last refuge of idiosyncratic and irreligious academics presenting themselves as “experts” on a faith that they study without the insight, recognition or reverence of, in this case, a practicing Hindu or even non-Hindu–striving to study Hinduism from the insider’s perspective–would offer.

As a surgeon working in the medical school of a large university, I hold my academic freedom as sacrosanct. My own writings, even here on OnFaith, are a reflection of the liberty I presume and cannot compromise. But this freedom comes with a sober responsibility. When I publish manuscripts and books, I am personally responsible for the veracity of the contents, statistical calculations, and scientific conclusions. These are not always empirical, and much editorializing is demanded. But my freedom is predicated on the accuracy of my work and the fairness of my conclusions. And errors, or playing fast and loose with editorial privilege in fact, if purposeful, can lead to harsh legal and ethical repercussions.

An “alternative” rendering is, of course, Doniger’s right. But when venturing into the alternate, if the factual is deprecated and editorializing privileged, if the treatment of a religion adhered to by over a billion is rendered unrecognizable in its iteration, a door is opened to bias, spin and errors. Over the last year, these are what many believe to have uncovered, and the ramifications are real.

Vishal Agarwal“Tell me where I have interpreted something wrong,” Doniger challenged her critics and the gauntlet was picked up. Factual inaccuracies in her latest book were detailed in a prominent Indian media outlet, and a lay historian, Vishal Agarwal, posted a detailed, chapter by chapter riposte to Doniger’s history that has been widely circulated. Not phrased in the niceties of academic parlance, perhaps, but Agarwal’s methodical work opens the door to questions about Doniger’s research, attention to detail, methodology, and more disturbingly, intentions behind her latest venture. Another detailed rebuttal to a single chapter spanning over twenty-two pages was posted by another writer this week [in March 2010].

Parallelisms in her book conjure up obsolete anecdotes comparing the sacred stone linga representing Lord Shiva to a leather strap-on sex toy, and Lord Rama, one of the most widely worshiped deities, is psychoanalyzed to have acted out of fear that he was becoming a sex-addict like his father. As Agarwal shows, Doniger’s prose is replete with cutesy, perhaps, but offensive and jejune turns of phrases such as, “If the motto of Watergate was ‘Follow the money’, the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be ‘Follow the monkey’ or, more often ‘Follow the horse’.” And in another section, her interpretations of the Rig Veda, the most ancient of the Vedas that Hindus consider sacred, Doniger sees incest and adultery with a pregnant woman in a verse praying to God for protection and safe delivery.

A Danish cartoonist would be hard pressed to match the disturbing parodies of a believer’s faith that Doniger offers throughout the book. The great Hindu yogi, Patanjali, cautioned in the 2nd century BCE against falling into the trap of false “meaning making” when reading scriptures that contain subtle, esoteric meanings as well as moral edicts. Doniger’s book, then, could be read as an idiosyncratic exposition that is “meaning making” out of profound revelations perhaps not meant for the spiritually untrained, untempered, and non-seeking mind.

It is not just that there are documented errors in fact predicated on errors in interpretation and context, but Hindus argue that Doniger seems to delight in celebrating the most obscure and arcane of anecdotes or stories from the hoary expanse of Hindu epics and scriptures. Privileging the absurd–dissembling it as an alternative–comes across as a specious exercise of a motivated author seeking spice to sell books.

It would seem a given that a book on religious history–intertwined with all of the inherent faith, emotion, and sensibilities that religion evokes in believers–would be approached with a modicum of restraint and sensitivity, if not deference. But instead, Doniger delights in inverting the filial into the incestuous, devotion into eroticism, and pride into chauvinism.

Whether such a licentious foray into Hinduism studies is protected by free speech is not the question. Doniger can write and believe what she wishes. But Hindus are asking if publishers should bear responsiblity for copious factual and interpretive errors.

This demand from Hindus to combat Doniger’s view of their religion cannot be reduced to an unhinged ban-the-book crusade. Asking a publisher to hold publishing of a book until errors are corrected carries strong recent precedent. Recall that publication of The Jewel of Medina was abruptly dropped by Random House last year when fear grew that a story about one of the wives of the prophet Muhammad would spark violence from the Muslim community, and just last week, publisher Holt and Company halted publication of The Last Train from Hiroshima when factual errors were uncovered in critical parts of the book.

Doniger’s alternate version of Hindu history, now playing in over 700 libraries in North America and Europe, raises a real fear that her “alternative” will become the mainstream. This issue is important to a minority striving to take control of its own narrative–a struggle repeated by generations of Americans as their voice grows and progeny prospers.

It remains to be seen if Hindus will prove their latest case against Doniger in the court of public opinion, but analagous allegations of academic bias are well known. The Southern Poverty Law Center continues to wage a public campaign against an anti-Semitic professor at Cal State Long Beach, and open protests continue against a faculty member holding white supremacy views at the University of Vermont. Each professor has academic freedom, but an agitating laity is wondering if institutions must support the mendacity of bigoted players devaluing that freedom.

Prof. Vamsee JuluriDoniger has tended to dismiss criticisms from Hindus as politically motivated, chauvinistic, sexist, casteist–the list is long. It is as Vamsee Julluri, Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote:

“The academy has gone almost directly from the Orientalist myth of Hindu superstition to the postmodern concern about Hindu fundamentalism, without even a notice of the great Hindu religion in between, and what it means to its followers and admirers. The academy must engage with Hinduism more positively.”

Academic freedom is sacrosanct. But academic legitimacy in the eyes of the public sets a much higher bar. – Onfaith, 17 March 2010

» Dr. Aseem Shukla is the Director of Minimally Invasive Surgery in the Department of Urology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, PA and is an Associate Professor of Surgery (Urology) at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Shukla is the co-founder and board member of the Hindu American Foundation.

4 Responses

  1. Pressure on Penguin to [re-]publish Doniger’s book in readers’ interest – DNA – February 15, 2014

    The tale of Penguin India agreeing to withdraw all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History got a twist on Friday with the publishing house getting a legal notice by Advocate Lawrence Liang of the Bangalore-based Alternate Law Forum on behalf of two Delhi residents — artist and writer Suddhabrata Sengupta, and PhD scholar of anthropology at Columbia University Aarti Sethi.

    The notice describes Penguin choosing “to withdraw the publication and circulation of The Hindus despite the fact that there is no court order that mandates such withdrawal” as “shocking and in absolute contravention of your responsibilities as a publisher” and “extra judicial killing of books and authors”. It further goes on to say that “In effect you have withdrawn the book on the basis of a legal threat thereby granting unauthorised groups and individuals the right to censor books.”

    The notice also cities previous instances of Penguin India giving into pressure over books that have rubbed some people the wrong way such as a biography of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, after she got an injunction against the book, a judgement the publisher “chose not to appeal” and “allowed the book to vanish instead”.

    Making a case for Penguin India’s actions going against the public interest, the notice also contested a claim that a statement from Penguin India — its first public message since the controversy broke on Tuesday — that “the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A”, made “it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression”. Agreeing to the need to reform the law, Sengupta and Sethi contended that “the only way in which that can happen is for publishers like yourself to take the legal battle to its logical end”.

    The notice asks Penguin India to rescind its agreement with Dina Nath Batra’s Shiksha Bacho Andolan and start publishing Doniger’s book, and demands that, if it does not do this, should give up its rights as owners of the copyright and allow the book to go under “general public license which will enable any person to copy, reproduce and circulate it whether in print or electronically within the territory of India”.

    Earlier in the day, Penguin India’s statement reaffirmed its belief in “freedom of thought and expression” and said that while it had “never been shy about testing that commitment in court”, it had obligations as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land, however “intolerant and restrictive” and a “moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment”. It said that it stood by its “original decision to publish The Hindus”, as also “other books that we know may cause offence to some segments of our readership”.


  2. An author may write anything in fiction. Writing of history or religion, one may express any view but liberty cannot be taken with facts. Mistranslation of sacred texts from another language, suppression of vital material, disregard for the interpretations of actual practitioners of living traditions, deliberate mispresentation – these cannot be claimed as part of ‘academic freedom’, even if they are part of freedom of expression. After all one may express any nonsense. But resorting to pornographic language in an academic publication on religion is not the norm.

    There has to be a sense of proportion and propriety in such matters, Christ’s historicity has been questioned, and not admitted by many scholars. The Catholic Mass, where the priest is supposed to partake of the body and blood of Christ has been interpreted as a remnant of cannibalism. We know that the Prophet Mohammad married a girl of 6 and consummated the marriage when she was 9 and he himself was 53. But in any academic programme as part of religious studies, these will not be covered in the prescribed books, though much material is available outside. Or perhaps, Wendy Doniger will do it. When so much care is exercised with regard to the Abrahamic tradition, even on facts, how much more care should be exercised in offering one’s own novel explanations in respect of an alien culture, especially when the theories on which they are based (eg Freudian) are discredited in academic circles themselves? As Nicholas Kazanas noted: Doniger “seems to see only one function…..of fertility and sexuality, copulation, defloration, castration and the like.” (We know what Freud thought of the Cigar!) To what extent does an interpretation based on such analysis qualify as a religious text? But strangely, Doniger calls her critics sexist! As Huston Smith pointed out, do these people ever think of ‘homosexual eroticism’ in Christian mysticism? And have these people analysed it?

    Once a book is published especially claiming to be academic, the author is morally liable to defend it and is bound to answer all reasonable, factual and valid criticism. Factual corrections have also to be carried out. Once we start picking the errors in Doniger’s book, there is virtually no end. When the author fails to respond to factual criticism or correct mistakes, the publisher cannot deny his responsibility.

    Wendy Doniger has a history of not only not responding to valid criticism, but also calling the critics fanatics, narrow minded, etc. She consistently refuses to engage in dialogue or discussion with representatives of people about whom she is writing so much of factual inaccuracies. In the circumstances, the publisher is accountable for what they have published.

    The statement given by Penguin is worse than their silence – a direct affront to Indian laws. It is mischievous. A case of books with errors and offensive material is converted to one of human rights, as if to offend a people is one’s right! She has the right to write and offend, but the offended people have no right to protest or defend! The British instinct to divide and rule seems to be still alive – though Great Britain has become little England!

    I tried to send a mail to Penguin today but they would not accept. TOI has also not published a letter I wrote them in response to Ramachandra Guha’s article. And this is the state of our human rights at the hands of big publishers and newspapers!


  3. Penguin India issues statement on ‘The Hindus’ recall – Krista Mahr – Time – February 14, 2013

    Penguin India released a statement Friday on its decision to recall and destroy copies of The Hindus: An Alternative History by U.S. scholar Wendy Doniger. Since news of the decision broke earlier this week, members of India’s literary circles and media have demanded that the renowned publisher explain why it agreed to an out-of-court settlement with a Hindu group that filed civil and criminal law suits against it, claiming the book was offensive. Arundhati Roy, one of India’s most celebrated writers and a Penguin author, wrote an open letter to her publisher, asking, “Tell us, please, what is it that scared you so?”

    Here is Penguin India’s Feb. 14 statement in full:

    Penguin Books India believes, and has always believed, in every individual’s right to freedom of thought and expression, a right explicitly codified in the Indian Constitution. This commitment informs Penguin’s approach to publishing in every territory of the world, and we have never been shy about testing that commitment in court when appropriate. At the same time, a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can.

    The settlement reached this week brings to a close a four year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. We have published, in succession, hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of the title. International editions of the book remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it.

    We stand by our original decision to publish The Hindus, just as we stand by the decision to publish other books that we know may cause offence to some segments of our readership. We believe, however, that the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.

    This is, we believe, an issue of great significance not just for the protection of creative freedoms in India but also for the defence of fundamental human rights.


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