There has been much hand-wringing in India about Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. Scholars and intellectuals across the board are critical and worried about Penguin’s decision to withdraw the book and pulp the remaining copies. The latest twist in the tale is the notice served to Aleph Book Company, the publisher of Doniger’s previous book, On Hinduism. The notice demanded that the publisher withdraw this book too. Aleph sent an emailed response stating that the book was out of stock, “probably due to various statements made in public as well as the media coverage of your objections to the book published by Penguin.”
Like most readers (and Hindus), I began reading Doniger’s door-stopper of a book after it was withdrawn. As a practicing Hindu, I wanted to find out if Shiksha Bachao Aandolan Samiti’s (known as SBAS and translated into the “movement to save education”) objections held water.
The problem is that Wendy Doniger is maverick and brilliant. Her wit bubbles up and escapes her, almost in spite of herself. Consider this line about the representation of Shiva through a phallus, known as a linga: “The linga in this physical sense is well known throughout India, a signifier that is understood across barriers of caste and language, a linga franca, if you will.”
I think it is a clever appropriate line, but I know that my uncle Chetan, who makes yearly pilgrimages to Mount Kailash would take umbrage at it. Joking about his favorite god is blasphemy, as far as he is concerned, never mind that Doniger knows her Sanskrit and Upanishads better than he does; never mind that she understands the glories of ancient India in a way that he cannot begin to fathom; never mind that she knows that the Manu Smriti that he often quotes uses animals to define humans. But these are details, and God, as far as the uncle Chetans of the world, doesn’t exist in the details. That’s for blokes like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, disrespectful elitist westerner pig—although as Doniger points out, in India, calling someone a dog carries more punch than saying “male chauvinist pig,” as the West does.
I have relatives who would immediately shut Doniger’s book with a loud plop and agree with SBAS founder Dinanath Batra who took the matter to court. “He brought a publisher and western author to their knees,” they would say with relish. This conclusion is understandable but wrong. Anyone who is interested in Hinduism should read Doniger’s book, preferably after a peg or two of some aged Ardbeg, because Doniger leavens her scholarship with a playful turn of phrase.
Alongside Doniger’s 683-page behemoth, I am also reading Diana Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography. The two books have Hinduism as their subject but their approach is different. Both are scholarly; both know their subject better than their Hindu readers who grew up with the religion. But their tone is different. Doniger is clever and playful; she shines the light into the dark crevasses of a religion that was formulated at a time when feminism as a concept didn’t exist. Doniger knows her Sanskrit and her Vedas, but she looks Hindu rituals and traditions from the point of view of women and minorities. You can see the logic of her doing it if you have ever studied in or spent time in an American university campus. You can also see the logic of taking umbrage at her tone if you’ve spent time at the Sanskrit college in Chennai, dominated as it was by scholars like Seshadrinathan who drew beautiful kolam-designs for the bhagavathi-sevais, a type of puja at my home, and explained the difference between the English idea of cleanliness and the Sanskrit notion of “shuddham,” to me. The priests who visited my home knew the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Sutras but they also believed that women ought not to recite them. They would not have had a knee-jerk reaction to Eck’s book.
Eck’s tone of voice in her book is scholarly, not irreverent or playful. It tells you a lot about Hinduism and India in a measured way. It makes for harder reading for that reason. But my point here is not to pit these two books against each other—it does disservice to both and although they are broadly similar in topic they are very different in detail—but to point out to Doniger, an author who I admire, that tone of voice can mask and detract from message.
It would be a shame for Doniger to water down her clever analogies and air-brush out her wit from her books, but it may be a pragmatic approach and indeed, one that will allow her books to get—and stay—distributed in India. Certainly, it will prevent readers with a chip on their shoulder to take up cudgels in the name of saving their religion.
Dinanath Batra unwittingly did a great service to Indians by getting her book revoked from the Indian market. There is nothing like old-fashioned “you will not read this book,” to get youngsters to actually start reading the book. Perhaps he should reread the book, and this time look at the “matter” as Indians say instead of focusing on how the said matter is conveyed to the masses. He might actually learn a lot from reading the book.
I haven’t finished Doniger’s book. It gets a bit chaotic towards the end with numerous ideas thrown forth in quick succession. But it attempts very hard not to bore people and for the most part succeeds. Consider this line: “Is the idea of a ‘sacred cow,’ an Irish bull (the old British chauvinist term for an ox-y-moron)?”
It is this sort of thing that makes Doniger’s prose sparkle? It is also the prose that makes her detractors’ blood boil.
For the sake of her new readers, Doniger should consider tempering her prose with a tone of voice that she would consider bland but one that will get her message across. As a reader who is at page 482 of her book, I would not welcome it; but as an admirer who would like Doniger’s book to be widely read across India, I would applaud with both hands.