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How Doniger's now-recalled 'The Hindus' ruffled Hindutva feathers

According to a legal agreement that appeared online yesterday, Penguin India has agreed to "recall and withdraw" existing copies of American academic Wendy Doniger's book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. At present, the book is reportedly out of stock in book-selling websites.

The complaint against The Hindus was filed by Dinanath Batra, OP Gupta, Sharvan Kumar, Samley Prasad, Mahesh Chander Sharma and Satish Chand Mittal. Batra is an educationist and the convenor of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee. While it is not known precisely what Batra and the others have found offensive in The Hindus, conservatives and the Hindutva brigade have had a long-running feud with Doniger. It's worth noting that The Hindus has technically not been banned. The agreement, the legality of which is yet to be confirmed by Penguin India, requires the unsold copies be withdrawn and be pulped.

Cover of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus

Cover of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus

Over the years, Doniger's interpretations of ancient Hindu texts have inspired many to take a closer look at ancient Hindu texts. Her research has explored themes of sexuality and gender in Hindu mythology and her readings have delighted some and unsettled others because they unsettle the established status quo. Those in disagreement have attacked Doniger in a variety of ways, ranging from questioning her proficiency in Sanskrit (despite the fact that she is, in fact, a Sanskritist) to more physical attacks . In 2002, Rajeev Malhotra wrote a long essay accusing Doniger of Hindu bashing. In 2003, while Doniger was presenting a talk on Ramayana in London, someone threw an egg at her (they missed, in case you were wondering, leaving an eggy splatter on the wall behind her).

Doniger has usually reacted to her detractors' claims with a sense of humour, which has resulted in more enraged responses. Some of these have been problematic but articulate while others, like this one, can't seem to decide whether Doniger as an all-consuming force of Western culture that is out to destroy Indian culture or an academic with a shrinking audience. Incidentally, neither is accurate. Doniger's attachment to India and its traditions is deep and respectful. She is also one of the most widely-respected and widely-read scholars on Hinduism.

The campaign against The Hindus has been in motion since 2010, when the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti led a protest against the book. A number of other Hindu organisations based in America supported this move. According to Narain Kataria, President of the Indian American Intellectuals Forum (IAIF), "By giving a pornographic twist to Hindu objects of veneration and worship, Doniger is trying to create the illusion that Hinduism is nothing but a crude immoral religion. This has the potential to create disaffection, disillusionment and depression in the minds of Hindu children about Hindu Dharma."

From its very title — "An Alternative History" — The Hindus makes it clear that Doniger is not going to put forward the standardised view. The 692-paged book travels from the Indus Valley civilization to present-day India, looking at different aspects of Hindu tradition and thought, noting how it has accrued ideas and changed over generations. In the process of analysing texts, Doniger attacks some venerated ideas by pointing out how past poets and writers resisted such rigidity. For example, Doniger writes of Manu and the social system he preached:

The female saints [of the Bhakti tradition in South India] flagrantly challenge Manu's notorious statement about a woman's constant subservience to her father, husband, and son. They are not bound to a man at all, and 'It is more common for a married woman saint to get rid of her husband than to endure him.'

(The last fragment is a Ramanujan quote.)

In another section of The Hindus, Doniger shows how the story of Eklavya in Mahabharat emphasises the importance of maintaining a certain caste-based social order. At the same time, the injustice that Eklavya suffers subtly points out the unfairness that riddles this system of hierarchy. The Hindus teems with quotations from original texts (translated by Doniger) and Doniger's interpretations of various texts from the Hindu canon.

Perhaps what makes Doniger difficult for some to digest is that she writes as an academic rather than a devotee. Her perspective isn't submissive towards the mythical characters she writes about, many of whom are considered divine as per the religion. However, Doniger's love and respect for the Hindu myths is unmistakable. Stung by Doniger's commitment to unearth the fragments that point out the diversity and the subaltern nestled in the conventional and conservative tellings of Hinduism, what the hardliner haters tend to miss is Doniger's assertion that ancient Hindu texts are "a hundred times more interesting than Biblical and Homeric texts".

Penguin India is yet to release an official statement about their decision to withdraw The Hindus.