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Doniger and the Struggles of Academic Inquiry

Hardeep Dhillon
  • Wendy Doniger's book 'The Hindus - An Alternative History' sparked a protest by Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) activists near US Embassy in Delhi in 2010. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty
    Wendy Doniger's book 'The Hindus - An Alternative History' sparked a protest by Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) activists near US Embassy in Delhi in 2010. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty
  • Cover of the controversial book 'The Hindus - An Alternative History' by Wendy Doniger
    Cover of the controversial book 'The Hindus - An Alternative History' by Wendy Doniger

The withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s 'The Hindus: An Alternative History', encapsulates the challenges facing freedom of academic expression in an India where the terms of intellectual debate are increasingly set by fringe outfits. In this analysis, Hardeep Dhillon, argues that the withdrawal of 'The Hindus' is a case against allowing religion to serve as an object of academic inquiry. She argues that the controversy raises heavy and pressing concerns about the relationship between academic scholarship, literature, and politicised public spheres. She questions why certain public memories, histories, and politics can make greater claims to truth without experiencing the same reprimand as academic scholarship. Dhillon further argues that though Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code establishes it an offence to insult any religion or the religious beliefs of a group; it also states that such insult must be propelled by deliberate or malicious intent. To establish such intent Dhillon emphasises that 'The Hindus' should be read within its scholarly context.

Recently, University of Chicago professor, Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was withdrawn from the shelves of Indian bookstores. Penguin India, the book’s publisher, withdrew the book following an out-of-court agreement with petitioner Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS). The group’s advocacy efforts, led by Dinanath Batra, alleged that Dr. Doniger infringed on five different sections of the Indian Penal Code including Section 295A, an anti-blasphemy law that bans acts intended to “outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. The SBAS further charged Dr. Doniger with “a haphazard presentation [of Hinduism] riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies”, and, characterised her as a scholar impassioned by “a Christian Missionary Zeal”. Following the withdrawal of The Hindus, the SBAS has also targeted Dr. Doniger’s On Hinduism and pressed the publisher, Aleph Book Company, to review the book with the ultimatum of pursuing legal action.

The controversy over Dr. Doniger’s The Hindus has received widespread media attention and a number of perspectives have been brought forward. I have penned this piece amongst a wide array of opinions in an effort to disentangle some questions and concerns that this controversy has raised for me as a student of twentieth-century Indian history. While the Doniger controversy intersects with a number of issues, including secularism, the role of the state and the rise of right-wing conservative politics, I have highlighted two of these in this piece. The first is on a matter related to history, religion, and politicised publics. The second concerns the very letter of the law.

On Publics And (Scholarly) Literature

Prior to my graduate studies, a young professor of mine at the University of California, Berkeley, began a history course titled “Hindu and Muslim Nationalism” with a small exercise. He asked us to observe our campus through a window in the classroom. We watched students walk by, the leaves flutter under the California sun, and listened as the noise from Sproul Plaza [a major hub of student activity in the University] filled the classroom. The professor then asked three students to recount what they had observed over the past three minutes. While each of the students had observed the same events unfolding outside of the classroom, their accounts differed from one another. Our professor’s point was clear -- no account of history can be uniform because the way we observe, read, interpret, and establish our parameters of inquiry vary, leading to distinct and perhaps overlapping conclusions. Yet, together, these accounts enable us to piece together more nuanced and encompassing histories.

It is from this same notion of multiplicity that a work like Dr. Doniger’s situates itself amongst the scholarship on religion (more broadly) even if we may have our differences with it. The title of her book reflects this multiplicity. Dr. Doniger’s work does not read The History of Hindus but The Hindus: An Alternative History. From the onset, she delineates her intervention in existing literature on Hinduism and religion more broadly without seeking to claim that it is the only analytical account on Hinduism.

The controversy over censoring The Hindus, however, raises heavy and pressing concerns about the relationship between academic scholarship, literature, and increasingly politicised public spheres (whatever their politics may be). The SBAS charged Dr. Doniger for maliciously hurting and offending Hindus. However, it is necessary to distinguish that as a scholar of religion, she does not read religious texts or practices at face value or endow them with an inherent truth. Her interpretation relies on approaches that have been part of a longer tradition, albeit a more Western one, in the study of religion.

To prevent Dr. Doniger from reading and writing from this perspective is a case against allowing religion to serve as an object of academic inquiry. It ultimately suspends the ability of a scholar to critically engage with religion in an analytical way unless it conforms to approved conceptions held by some specific aggressively intolerant organisations. In the case of The Hindus, the SBAS does exactly this -- it lays claim to providing shiksha [education] but only that which it finds to be culturally relevant and appropriate. Historian Janaki Nair has analytically and accurately shown that it is SBAS’ effort to control “the negative aspects and evil practices prevalent in Hinduism” that propels its concern over Doniger’s book. In effect, the SBAS not only seeks to control who participates in the debates on religion and history but also attempts to control the very terms of the debate.

The efforts to ban and censor literary and scholarly texts are also targeted on specifc publications. In this regard, I would like to posit a series of substantive questions: Why is it that texts like V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva do not encounter challenges of censorship? Hindutva clearly calls into question the citizenship of Indian Muslims and portrays them as unfaithful foreigners but it continues to be widely available and read across India. In fact, it is even read in academic circles to provide insight on the foundational ideology of right-wing organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Why is it that academic scholarship bears the brunt of censorship attacks? What is so scandalous or detrimental in academic and literary works that they become threatening to entire worldviews, particularly when they are nuanced and well-researched compositions? My aim is not to privilege academic scholarship but it is, rather, to inquire why certain public memories, histories, and politics can make greater claims to truth without equal reprimand.

On the letter of the law

I would like to now transition to my second issue of concern. In the notice served by SBAS, Dr. Doniger’s work was overshadowed by personal attacks and claims of poor scholarship. Signs that characterize Dr. Doniger as a “Hindu-hater” have become the central form of protest against her book. As a result, her character has become the focus from which arguments against her work are deployed and the seriousness that is required to engage with her scholarly work is overshadowed by a series of preconceptions towards her character. In her recent op-ed, Dr. Doniger has highlighted the brashness of some of her critics and it is clear that they restrict the hope for substantive dialogue.

However, while Sec. 295 of the Indian Penal Code establishes it is an offence to insult the religion or religious beliefs of a group, it also states that such insult must be propelled by deliberate or malicious intent. In the litigation process between Penguin India and SBAS, it would be interesting to see how and if this conversation was carried out. Moreover, if malicious or deliberate intent is to be established, The Hindus must be read within its scholarly context. Questions regarding the intervention Dr. Doniger attempts to make in recent and past scholarship, the methodology through which her research questions are explored, the archival base and evidence from which she draws, and the interpretation of sources become a central focus. If intent is explored seriously, many of the claims SBAS has put forward against Dr. Doniger will hold little or no legal weight.

Some claim that efforts to censor Dr. Doniger’s book have backfired due to the increased readership of her book. However, the fact remains that The Hindus can no longer be discussed as an open facet of public education in India. This, in itself, is a loss that cannot be reconciled by increased sales because it spans beyond the parameters of any single book. Moreover, in Dr. Doniger’s case, the state has remained largely absent and the lack of an assured non-violent space inevitably impacts the degree to how openly scholarship and literary texts can circulate in the future, particularly within the public domain.

A second matter related to the letter of the law is its presumption of a society comprised of religious communities. However, who is to determine or lay claim to what is offensive or hurtful to any community? There is no singular, homogeneous voice that has risen from Hindus on the issue. In fact, it is quite obvious that the terms of the debate are being set by organisations like the SBAS who position themselves as representatives of the Hindu community. Yet, how can this single organisation determine what is offensive to a Hindu and what is not? By homogenizing a population, groups such as the SBAS make claims to community without respect for the diversity within. Historically, such essentialization has been particularly detrimental to more marginal segments of the ascribed population, including women and low-caste groups. This is why a book like The Hindus was penned in the first place – to open spaces for discussion.

Enduring challenges

I would like to conclude by recounting an incident that occurred in one of my courses last November at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). During the last class session for a course, another graduate student inquired about truth in history writing. He was flustered by the notion that there could be two historical narratives that could conflict but still hold factual weight. His frustration perhaps stemmed from the assumption that there is always one narrative in history that holds greater truth value and prevails over others. What was interesting for me to note was that his source of frustration was a factor that compelled me to study history. The complex and nuanced narratives that could not be packaged as a simple story for others to consume opened up a series of questions that propelled me to think more critically about the material at hand. Yet, this perspective requires a willingness to respect and grapple with things unknown even if they conflict with one another and our own worldviews. In this mode of shiksha, a desire to learn without aggressive temperament is developed and a politics for inclusion is honed. The struggles against groups like the SBAS are also given fuel through a line of questioning that challenge such authoritarian claims. Fortunately, these challenges will continue to ensue for as long as history and religion remain, so will their scholars.


@Arh My referral about Ms.Doniger mentioning Pallava kings' raids on Buddhist temples of Anuradhapura is only about this historical fact not being in Indian books of history I read. Did you know? Being a Hindu I would like to believe Pallavas raided those Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka for grabbing wealth. We all know Muslims as idol destroyers may do it for both wealth and hatred against 'Kafirs'. Would the Muslims have done it if there was no wealth in those Hindu temples? Did the Muslims destroy the frescoes/sculptures in Ajanta and Ellora, so near their place of power, Aurangabad? If not, why not? We Hindus wish to think we hurt nobody and imagine worse of every other religion. Ms.Doniger brings us to our senses insofar as our history is concerned. There is a quote from either a book or our own scriptures for all her comments. Of course, interpretations from those historical facts is her own. I do not agree with ALL her interpretations but I wish to see how others see us.

from:  GNS
Posted on: Apr 3, 2014 at 03:40 IST

@GNS writes about Pallava kings' raiding of temples. There is a fundamental difference between looting for riches and "divinely" inspired destruction of another beliefs and it's symbols (where the riches are one part of the motivation for the act). Truth and reconciliation in South Africa was the more recent strategy to deal with a historical tragedy. It is glossing over the history that carries forward the hurt.

from:  Arh
Posted on: Mar 31, 2014 at 07:34 IST

Giving an extremely perverted view of a religion is never going to attract universal praise. Sentiments of millions are deeply hurt by this. For example, perverted view of Torah, the religious candle symbol of the Jews is never going to invite applause from the Jews. It is blasphemy but not scholarliness anymore. If one compares the religious history of Judaism and the Jewish with the Hindus, one can easily see how shallow and pointless Judaism is and one will deeply pity the treatment meted out to the Jews from all countries before Israel was formed. The practice of reverse circumcision, for example to imitate Greek gods by the Jewish is indeed pathetic. As a scholar and historian, Doniger has a greater task of publicizing positive outlook of Judaism and Jewish history and try to show why people of the world shunned Judaism and Jewish historically than to criticize Hinduism which is relatively more welcomed and whose concepts are adopted by more and more people even today.

from:  john
Posted on: Mar 29, 2014 at 19:11 IST

For me it is not the question of a religious belief or insult to any religion. I am a scholar and Doniger is lacking any kind of scholarship to be a so called historian. She is taking things out of context, distorting them and is not giving any supportive evidences. She has an awful writing style and her presentation is junky. I bet Dhillon or Romila Thapar or many of her other supporters have not read her 600 pages of nonsensical writings. I tried…. and it was hard to go through this utter nonsense. She is an insult to great scholars of Indian history and Indology like Mircea Eliade, Alain Danelou and A.L. Bhasham. Unfortunately she is occupying Mircea Eliade Chair in the University of Chicago. Her writings are an insult to our culture and Indian publishers should not support her distorted and personalized version of our cultural history.

from:  Dr. V. Verma
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 02:26 IST

At the outset, I will like to clear that I have not read the controversial 'The Hindus'. But I have concern with writer Hardeep Dhillon's comment that her one old lecturer told the entire classroom to observe an out scene through an open window and later announced that history is all about the observation of writer, which differs from others. Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti's Dinanath Batra has all rights to challenge the observations of Dr. Doniger and he did it. If someone wants to challenge observations of VD Savarkar, he/she can approach concerning courts.

from:  Saurabh
Posted on: Mar 25, 2014 at 21:42 IST

The author's experiment referred to at the UC, Berkeley is illuminating for several reasons. This is the device with which the Western establishment co-opts indigenous researchers to discard any natively formed intelligence and accept thought modes that have benefits for the West. By using the above "multi-perspective history view", academic researchers have successfully formed a narrative that British colonialism was good and beneficial for the subcontinent. So much so that all the droughts, famines, and racism is forgotten. Indians must beware of the cachet that truth is multi-faceted. It is against the philosophical grain of ancient India - truth will triumph always - all the other pretender narratives will vanish and be destroyed by the Kalachakra - Wheel of Time. Wendy's book is ripe material for another discussion. If a person spends 40 years of his/her life studying books on bicycling/cycles/stamina/human body, will that person know how to cycle or experience the joy of cycling?

from:  Ainux
Posted on: Mar 25, 2014 at 14:42 IST

It is tragic that in India, largest democracy in the world, academic freedom and alternative scholarship are restricted by even academic journals such as the Economic and Political Weekly. I wrote a rejoinder to a "special article" by Emily Howie on "boat migration" to Australia from Sri Lanka published in EPW of 31 August 2013. Although on 01 October 2013 the EPW accepted my rejoinder for publication, it has not been published to date (25 March 2014). When I inquired about the delay in the publication of my rejoinder, I received an email on 19 February 2014 from EPW saying that it cannot publish my rejoinder because it has already appeared in an online citizens journal in Sri Lanka. When I protested to EPW that it is common nowadays for academic articles to be published online long before they are published in printed journals, the EPW informed me on 20 February 2014 that it has reconsidered their decision and will be publishing my rejoinder within 6-8 weeks. I am awaiting patiently.

from:  Muttukrishna Sarvananthan
Posted on: Mar 25, 2014 at 07:41 IST

@Sanjeev Shukla I read this book. I did not find any comment attributed by you to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Vivekanada Swamy(VS). May I know the page number that your comment refers to? Yes, she quoted a newspaper interview in Chicago when VS asked the host to serve him beef. What we do not know is whether VS asked in jest or otherwise. Ms.Doniger also quoted VS asking Hindus to eat meat, also based on newspaper interview of VS in Chicago in 1893 or thereabouts .What we do not like Ms.Doniger telling us is: Hindu Pallava kings looting Buddhist temples in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and other Hindu kings raiding rival Hindu rulers' temples for grabbing jewellery as in those times temples were like today's banks. The message is: temple raids are not the monopoly of Muslim kings alone and everyone did it. Ms.Doniger also highlights how the voices of other lower castes, other than Brahmins and Kshatriyas, were not allowed to be heard in our history of Hinduism.I may not agree with her but I would like to hear her.

from:  GNS
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 03:34 IST

@Raja @Sen Anyone who is doing extensive scholarly and academic work on Hinduism, must be welcomed. If someone thinks that she has written wrong or something which misleads people, then one must come forward and should put counterarguments. Extremists like Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS) want to ban everything which would go against their own constructed cultural values and their idea of Hinduism. It would be my judgment to which side I will prefer to go and to select a particular side, I have to have different sides. As VD Savarkar argues with historical evidences that 'Hindutva' is as old as the human race across the world. Foreigners did not give the term 'Hindu', it was just an ill-attempt by foreigners to take the credit of nurturing this ancient civilization.

from:  Kamal Sharma
Posted on: Mar 20, 2014 at 02:02 IST

Critical researched enquiry into religions is welcome. However, irrespective of Doniger's title, she writes the work as 'history', while interspersing freudian/sexual/psychoanalytic deconstruction with fact, without mentioning what the fact is and what the interpolation/deconstruction is. Because she doesn't believe the validity of spiritual experience, Ramakrishna Paramhansa is converted into a perverted homosexual pedophile because he touched (a not yet 18 years of age) Vivekananda between the eyebrows, and infused spiritual experience within him (sic) - in her perverted deconstruction, there could be no spiritual experience, only sexual. This faulty logic could be extended to all religious leaders. Her writing would be acceptable if the extent of psychoanalytical interpretation was within the bounds of rationality, or if she had clearly delineated fact from analysis. I would be offended if someone spoke of me or my parents in that vein, why not of my religion?

from:  Sanjeev Shukla
Posted on: Mar 19, 2014 at 01:42 IST

The book cover depicts Ashwamedha ritual.

from:  ajit vadakayil
Posted on: Mar 16, 2014 at 23:45 IST

She is not willing to discuss her book with scholars of opposing views. Even in the recent op-ed, she gloats the book sales in amazon is good. She has not answered any of the valid questions posed by believers.

from:  vijay
Posted on: Mar 16, 2014 at 13:14 IST

@Raja First define who "foreigner" is. At present Wendy Doniger is a foreigner, but the accounts of Hinduism that are presently preached are indeed from a conglomeration of such "foreigners". India being a country of immigrants through time immemorial, indeed, practice of Hinduism has "foreign" components. Even the term "Hindu" is foreign, in case you didn't know. Any religion that feels threatened by words of person should look into itself and figure out why so much insecurity exists.

from:  Sen
Posted on: Mar 16, 2014 at 07:34 IST

Frankly we should not care what a foreigner has to say about Hinduism. Hinduism is not created by single person or a governing body, it's grown with time, you can be a Hindu but you cannot represent Hinduism.

from:  Raja
Posted on: Mar 14, 2014 at 19:56 IST
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