Why Wendy Doniger’s book should not be withdrawn

It’s a slippery slope when we start banning books and even worse, withdrawing or recalling books.  Do books need to start passing through a censor soon, to determine what is acceptable and what is not?  Not that even a censor would help – because apparently all it takes is a few people to take offense at something in a book or movie for it to find itself in trouble.

I was a little shocked to read that Penguin India is withdrawing all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus : An Alternative History” from the Indian market. What an utterly bad precedent, and how unnecessary.

hindus_book

It’s not  that Wendy Doniger’s book is a great scholarly work that I think everyone should read.  I reviewed Doniger’s book back in 2009, when I talked about how she calls the Aryans as cattle thieves and how she confuses symbolism for fact.  As someone with a doctorate in Sanskrit, surely she knows that Sanskrit is full of symbolism and most words have multiple meanings ? Surely she also knows that the legend she is quoting has widely published alternative explanations based on the twin meanings of the word “go” in Sanskrit – “cow” and “light”.  Yet she sticks to her literal meaning, without even mentioning the alternate interpretation. 

I wrote again about the book in 2010, when her book was nominated a finalist for the Book Critics Award. I wrote about how she portrays Dasaratha as a sex-addict  and claims that Lakshmana lusted after Sita.  Clearly, she manages to see things in the Ramayana that no one else has seen so far, and one can argue that perhaps she is the one seeing with a dirty lens.

Her pseudo-Freudian analyses are certainly not backed up by any qualifications or training in psychoanalysis, as far as I can see from her CV.  Perhaps she was aiming for controversy, even if it lost her some credibility.  Whatever her reasons, the impression I received after reading her book was that it was not a great scholarly work, whatever the author’s credentials.  It is not worth the attention it has been getting, and the attention it will get in the coming weeks and months.

But Penguin India’s decision is not only a blow for free speech, it also risks making a martyr out of Wendy Doniger and makes much of her book. Now Ms. Doniger can make statements like this -

Ms. Doniger said she was “deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate.”

If Ms. Doniger was aiming for controversy, she has certainly succeeded now.

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9 Comments

  1. Penguin India is too scared of the Section 295a of the IPC and decided to pulp the books without putting up a fight :
    ” Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.– Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 6[ citizens of India], 7[ by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 8[ three years], or with fine, or with both.]”

    I wonder if the next target will be Wendy Doniger in person, rather than just her books. Who will be the Hindu equivalent of a mullah or imam declaring a fatwa? Or is it Indian law itself as it currently stands?
    I think Penguin thinks they have everything to gain with this decision (i.e. the book rises phenomenally in popularity outside India and on the Indian blackmarket, gives new cachet to Doniger’s next book.), all while protecting the average Penguin India worker from angry protests by the Hindutva groups. Arundhati Roy can only hope that such controversy attends her next novel!

  2. You are right, Penguin India did mention this section of the IPC in their statement as their reason for withdrawing the book. But this still begs the question of why they assume that any court would see this book as a “deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings”. They could always argue that it is an, er, scholarly work.

    • Previous use of the law might explain why Penguin India thinks that they as publishers might be at risk : See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech_laws_in_India for some of the cases where the law was applied.
      I’m reading the Doniger book now (with the umpteen free copies that are now available on the internet). So far, my main objection to it (at chap. 2 now), is that when Wendy is good and academic, she’s good. When she descends into trivialities and tries to imagine the past in terms of her contemporary and cultural moorings, she is bad. Still haven’t seen much of the horrid yet, but that may be deeper in the book. Plus, I seriously disagree with her introductory musings on how Sanskrit is likely derivative of vernaculars. I wonder if she could have gotten away with this kind of hypothesis if she said Latin was derived from French and Italian.

      • That musing (for the sake of other readers) is :
        “It must have been the case that the natural language, Prakrit, and the vernaculars came first, while Sanskrit, the refined, secondary revision, the artificial language, came later. But South Asianists often seem to assume that it is the other way around, that the dialects are “derived from Sanskrit” because Sanskrit won the race to the archives and was the first to be written down and preserved, and we only encounter vernaculars much later. “

        Does she reference any basis for this opinion ? No. But it is an opinion, so why “it must have been the case” ? Why the dismissive attitude toward other “South Asianists” who no doubt have good reasons for their belief that Sanskrit is older? Like, for instance, the fact that “we only encounter vernaculars much later”..

        This is typical of her writing throughout the book. Authoritative opinions without any backing up, dismissive attitude toward other interpretations (if she does even mention that such alternate interpretations exist).

      • Clang i haven’t sent one to India yet. So that’s how long it took me to get one from there. What i did was ask for a private swap. If you want one, do the spwipang. ^^

  3. It became a slippery slope a long time ago when freedom of speech in Indian Constitution was diluted by Cha-cha Nehru for political purposes. Furthermore, I have no sympathy for that hypocrite Wendy (who never loses an opportunity to curtail freedom of speech that criticizes her ideas, or label her critics as “fundamentalists” instead of engaging them in a debate), and for what it’s worth, Mr., Dina Nath Batra waged a long and legal battle, and this comes under his freedom to express himself. And to make a big deal of someone throwing an egg at her – there’s a healthy tradition of throwing a pie on people’s faces as a way to show disagreement or to protest, and politicians have been pummeled with tomatoes and rotten vegetables when their speeches were disagreeable. Yet, no one in their sane minds would label pie-and-tomato throwers as fundamentalists.

    The other issue is one of asymmetry of power – Wendy wields a lot more power and influence than those who criticize her.

    At least no one died or was physically attacked, unlike when religion of peace is involved in similar issues. If people are so concerned about not having books banned, then they need to work towards changing the laws in India pertaining to freedom of speech, and not be silent when similar bans are enacted to appease “rage boys” of the world. But we both know that (latter part) is not going to happen anytime soon.

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