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Why the Wendy Doniger episode is not a free speech issue

By Sandeep Balakrishna

Before we begin we need to set two critical aspects in the proper perspective:

The episode of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An alternative history is not a ban of the book. It is a voluntary withdrawal of the book by its publisher, Penguin Books.

The episode is not an issue of free speech. Neither Penguin nor the petitioners acted outside the boundaries of the law concerning free speech in India.

Wendy Doniger. Image courtesy: Screengrab from YouTube video uploaded by Aleph Book Company.

Wendy Doniger. Image courtesy: Screengrab from YouTube video uploaded by Aleph Book Company.

The outrage over Penguin withdrawing Doniger’s book has emanated mostly from the section that calls itself secular and liberal, among other things. And this outrage cleverly sidesteps the valid and vast critiques of Wendy Doniger’s scholarship and frames the issue as one of a book ban and Hindu fundamentalism. The kind of arson and violence that erupted across the world in the wake of the Danish cartoons fits the definition of religious fundamentalism. It is clear that the petitioners simply took to legal recourse in this case. Besides, it was Penguin’s decision to voluntarily withdraw the book in an out-of-court settlement for reasons best known to it. Therefore, raising the din that freedom of expression is under threat by Hindutva forces is off the mark.

The other key aspect in this case is the element of an imbalance of power in public and academic discourse which favours only specific views and dismisses opposing and/or alternate ones as a conspiracy of Hindutva forces. This has for the longest time both prevented and suppressed honest examinations of the work of scholars like Wendy Doniger in the West and most scholars in the humanities in India. As we observe even in the present case, this phenomenon has only reinforced itself in various ways: by framing the issue as one involving free speech and by suppressing the examination of Wendy’s scholarship.

Indeed, there exists enormous literature pertaining to this imbalance, specifically in the American academia in the area of Indology. Perhaps the seminal expose of sorts of this phenomenon was done by Rajiv Malhotra in the early part of the previous decade. Malhotra coined the term “Wendy’s Child Syndrome” to title it. Around the same time, Yvette Rosser, a PhD student in Asian Studies, wrote a five-part series, an in depth examination of the “loss of scholarship” in South Asian studies. Then Professor SN Balagangadhara from Ghent University wrote a rejoinder to Jeffery Kripal (an ardent supporter of Doniger), which also includes a brief critique of Doniger’s scholarship. Similar essays and critiques were compiled in a book titled Invading the Sacred which is perhaps one of the most definitive works that aid our understanding of the exact state of affairs in Indology in the US academia in general and the scholarship of the likes of Wendy Doniger in particular.

To put it bluntly, Wendy Doniger is a syndrome that dates back to the colonial era where entire departments of Indology, Sanskrit, and Oriental studies were liberally funded by the British colonial administration. They were liberally funded because the British Government needed these Indologists to interpret the Hindu traditions, customs and laws that in turn helped them shape policies to rule over the "natives". And so from the time of, say, William Jones right up to Wendy Doniger, the research, narrative, and interpretation was, unsurprisingly, colonial in both colour and flavour. In other words, Eurocentric. This trend continues till date where new scholarly papers and books are written purporting to "reinterpret" or provide an "alternative interpretation" of Hindu mythology, the Vedas, Puranas, symbolism, sages, Gods, Goddesses, and so on.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that almost all of these scholarly works meet with such intense criticism by not just scholars but even by practicing Hindus. Indeed, when Aurobindo encountered such flawed (and motivated) scholarship in his own time, he cautioned that these scholars lacked the background necessary to properly understand core Hindu texts. In Doniger’s case, it has been repeatedly shown that she frequently mistranslates Sanskrit in order to arrive at the conclusion/thesis she has in mind. This apart, her selective use of primary texts, and an almost single-minded focus of eroticising every aspect of Hinduism are other serious lapses pointed out by the critics of her scholarship. Here are just a few samples of the sort of interpretation of Hinduism done by Wendy Doniger and other scholars in her mould:

Holi [is] the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries. (the now defunct Microsoft Encarta)

Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviours such as war in order to relieve "mother Earth" of its burdensome human population. (A lecture in 2000 entiteld The Complicity of God in the Destruction of the Human Race)

Rama had a fear of following his sex-addict father Dasharatha’s footsteps, which made him betray his own sexuality, which in turn made him abandon Sita.

Doniger looks for information about Hindu temple building in the Kama Sutra instead of, say, in the Pancharatra or the Vaikhanasa Aagama texts.

Ganesha’s large belly is a proof of the Hindu male's enormous appetite for oral sex. (Paul Courtright, in his book on Ganesha)

Most of the works of these scholars also contain elements of racially profiling Hindus. For example, Stanley Kurtz claims that nursing Hindu mothers do not bond with their babies the way white women do. If something similar were to be written about people of other cultures and/or religions in the US or elsewhere, outraged screams of "racism!" would ensue instantly. However, when Hindus respond with scholarly and honest criticism of such scholarship, their response is dismissed as the ranting of Hindu extremists. Indeed, Wendy herself sets the precedent by pretending that her only critics are Hindu extremists and consistently refuses to address the vast volume of genuine criticism. Of course, there’s no dearth of Indians who cheerlead her by dismissing Rajiv Malhotra’s critiques as one of having a "long history of essentially trolling Wendy Doniger".

The outrage of Hindus at scholars like Wendy Doniger is rooted not in her actual portrayal of their religion but in a more fundamental, subconscious level. Her portrayals of Hinduism—apart from flawed scholarship—deny Hindus their own experience of their religion. In other words, such portrayals will tell, for instance, Hindu women who worship the Shiva Linga that they are essentially worshipping a penis. This is merely a hypothesis or a theory but one which is completely at variance with the centuries-old experience of the Shiva-linga worshipping Hindu women.

Equally, this hypothesis is not rooted any of the primary Hindu texts that deal with the concept of Shiva Linga, and is therefore incorrect. Yet, it passes off as truth in the US academia.  Thus it is this denying of experience—like conducting an academic study that somehow proves that sugar is bitter contrary to experience—that has upset the Hindus; the actual eroticisation is merely a manifestation of this denial. And as SN Balagangadhara says, such theories are not even theories but are a "theorising of someone else’s experience".

Unfortunately, none of the liberals who’re now crying wolf over free speech have given this context. The new villain now is the unjust law embodied in Section 295A. As this article perceptively observes, it is these very liberals who paved the way for illiberalism for over 60 years. This is not an argument for a ban or a curtailment of free speech, but really, an examination of the hypocrisy in public discourse right from framing the book-withdrawal issue as a ban. Those arguing against Penguin’s "surrender", and those who respond by saying that the answer to Doniger’s book is another book are precisely the people who have ignored and/or rubbished precisely such books as Invading the Sacred.

I shall conclude with this quote by Wendy Doniger:

The Bhagavad Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think…Throughout the Mahabharata ... Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war.... The Gita is a dishonest book …” (Quoted in Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 November, 2000)

Assume for a moment that Wendy Doniger substituted "Bhagavad Gita" and "Krishna" with "Koran/Bible" and "Jesus/Mohammed". Would our liberals still support her as they’re now doing?

Therein lies the true test of liberalism and commitment to freedom.

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