Book by religion historian Wendy Doniger draws criticism by Hindus





Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, has drawn the ire of some Hindus who regard her scholarship as sacrilegious. During a lecture in London in 2003, someone in the audience threw an egg at Doniger to express disagreement with her interpretation of a passage in the Ramayana, a sacred epic.

The egg did not connect. But it proved that she had her audience’s attention. So does the response to her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, published last year by Penguin. In January, the National Book Critics Circle named it as one of five finalists in nonfiction for 2009. Around 30 protesters gathered outside the Tishman auditorium of New School University in New York when Doniger appeared with other finalists who were reading from their books at a public event. Countless others (well, thousands anyway) had signed petitions calling for Penguin to withdraw The Hindus from the market. Clearly "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is not a Vedic principle....

Doniger's book is a work of popularization and synthesis, but it performs those functions under a distinctly scholarly protocol. Her approach is to focus on the interaction, across the centuries, between the codified layer of belief found in the Sanskrit scriptures and various local forms of Hinduism. The latter, in turn, consist of both oral and written strands of vernacular tradition. In other words, Doniger takes great heterogeneity (at all levels: linguistic, theological, cultural, and political) as a given.

Sexuality is commonly found in folklore and secular writing, and it is an aspect (if not the only one) of the material Doniger examines. Some of the Hindu gods and goddesses are frisky, like their Greek and Roman colleagues. The elongated stone figure of the linga associated with Lord Shiva can be interpreted as a pillar of light, but it is hardly a case of Freudian enthusiasm to note its resemblance to an erect penis. And indeed there are believers who can accept this without suffering any cognitive dissonance....

There are, to be sure, cases of actual problems, such as when Doniger two different sets of dates for the life and death of the poet Mirabi. I wish that sort of thing still shocked me. But long exposure to the work of academics tends to dispel any notion that they are more accurate than, say, journalists. Sorry, that's just the way it is. Last month I read a book by an Ivy League professor who referred to the global impact when Khruschev gave his 1961 speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin. (A decent "Jeopardy" contestant might be expected to know that the speech took place in 1956.) For Doniger to have made various small citation errors, or to have attributed the doings of one emperor to another, seems par for the course in a book of several hundred pages....

The most interesting perspective on l’affaire Doniger that I have seen was published last week in The Hindustan Times, in a column by Ashok Malik.

Malik points to the recent case of M. F. Husain, an Indian painter who was driven into exile by the furor over his nude portraits of certain goddesses. Malik attributes the campaign against Doniger to a new sort of activist, “the internet Hindu,” who blogged and tweeted with excitement about the victory over Husain -- then went looking for more excitement. The infrastructure of indignation sprang into action when the NBCC decided to name The Hindus: An Alternative History as a finalist....


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