Drowning in the waters of tradition

One thing that’s incredibly, tragically ironic about Penguin’s (forced) submission in the case of Doniger’s book is that it was Penguin that fought back when David Irving tried to force it to withdraw and pulp Deborah Lipstadt’s book. The title of the case is David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt. Penguin fought, Penguin spent a fortune, and Penguin won.

Vijay Prashad gives some background on Doniger’s work.


Doniger, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, is no stranger to this kind of controversy. Her studies of Hinduism have sought to recover the buried, heterodox Tantric tradition from under the weight of the orientalist’s favourite form of Hinduism – Vedanta. For European orientalists, Vedantism was the closest to their own monotheism – a set of faith practices bourgeois in their mood and conduct. Tantrism – with its impurities of sex and diet – seemed out of favour. Doniger and her collaborators sought to revive interest in Tantrism, for which they turned to new methods of interpretation, notably psychoanalysis.

Doniger’s book is part of this “alternative” history that seeks to explore the worlds of the dalits and women – outcasts at the bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. Out of the complexity of the myths, Doniger sought to provide a picture of tolerance amidst violence. It is ironic, then, that the court case accuses her of being anti-Hindu, when it is her work that has provided a fuller description of Hinduism.

But dalits and women. There’s your problem right there.

Doniger had welcomed creative controversy, but what she got was something else. The attack was on the scholars themselves as much as on the scholarship, and there was little room for a serious discussion about the breadth of the Hindu tradition. The attackers wanted a Hinduism that had the qualities of a bourgeois religion. Sex, and homosexuality in particular, had to be expunged. It did not look good for the newly emergent Hindu right to be associated with a faith with dirt under its nails, and gods with sexual lives.

The full blast of the Hindu right’s tentacular organisations terrified Indian cultural institutions. Motilal Banarsidass, the publisher of Courtright’s book, withdrew it in 2003. The next year, the Hindu right government in the state of Maharashtra banned James Laine’s book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, after a violent attack at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for its association with the book. In 2006, the painter MF Husain fled India for Qatar after his show of nude Indian gods and goddesses was attacked for “hurting the sentiments of the people”. The laws leaned upon for all this are colonial creations, which were used in the 1930s against Max Wylie’s Hindu Heaven and Arthur Miles’ The Land of the Lingam. The British did not want to “hurt the sentiments” of the orthodox Brahmins so they disallowed any representation of Hinduism that gave voice to the untouchables, to women and to tribals. This old colonial legacy is now fully inhabited by the Hindu right.

Ironic enough yet?

Batra, who filed the suit, is a familiar character in Indian society. But this is no one-man mission. He is the head of the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, the educational arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the brains of the Hindu right. The spokesman of the Hindu right’s cultural wing, Prakash Sharma, called him a “senior and revered figure, who has always fought against elements that pollute the minds of our youth”.

The party of the Hindu right, BJP, believes that it will win the national elections this year, with its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi leading it to victory.

And Modi is the guy who allegedly failed to stop (or worse) the Gujarat riots. He could be India’s prime minister soon. Nuclear India, that is, next door to nuclear Pakistan. Oh we live in interesting times, for sure.

Alongside the court cases of people such as Batra has been a chilling breeze through the media as owners have begun to cull editors who have been critical of Modi, notably Open Magazine’s Hartosh Singh Bal and television journalists Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghosh. It is in this context that Penguin decided to withdraw and pulp Doniger’s book. That Penguin did not fight the case says a great deal about the limitations of corporate commitment to freedom of speech.

It did fight it at first. But the bullies won.





  1. says

    Heh. So much for charges of “colonialism”, when it was the West that begot the current situation in the first place. I’d like to know how much of the current African homophobia was originally an import by Christian and Muslim missionaries.

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