More Reflections on Doninger’s Hinduism Book

Like a lot of people, I was dismayed (to put it mildy) that Penguin India has pulled Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History from sale in that country.

Indologist Koenraad Elst, no stranger to such controversies, explains some of the background on Indian law about religions here.

Art. 295A was never the doing of Hindu society. It was imposed by the British on the Hindus in order to shield Islam from criticism. The reason for its enactment was the murder of Pandit Lekhram in 1897 by a Muslim because Lekhram had written a book criticizing Islam. While the British authorities sentenced the murderer, they also sided with him by retroactively and posthumously punishing Lekhram.

Though originally and for a long time serving to shield Islam, Hindus gradually discovered that they too could use the religiously neutral language of this Article to their seeming advantage. Christians as well have invoked it, e.g. to ban Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. This creates a sickening atmosphere of a pervasive touch-me-not-ism, with every community outdoing the other in being more susceptible to having its sentiments hurt.

American academics have a moral right to deplore this law, on condition that they have spoken out against it on the occasion of earlier conspicuous incidents of book-banning. Where was Wendy when Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was banned? Not knowing her entire record, I leave it to her to provide the answer. At any rate, many Indian secularists, who mostly enjoy the support of those American academics, supported the ban, which was decreed by a self-declared secular Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) and ruling party (Congress).

Some . . . interesting . . . comments on Elst’s post, too.

At the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, Steven Ramey uses this incident to discuss some larger issues in religious studies and the old scholar-practitioner tensions:

One point of contention between Doniger (and many contemporary scholars) and some of her detractors is the difference between a generally post-modern conception of interpretation as subjective and a more modern, objectivist epistemology. While Doniger’s detractors identify specific assertions and dates that they have labeled as inaccurate, the central issue, the cause for taking offence, seems to be Doniger’s emphasis on less prominent anecdotes, images and interpretations that do not conform to the image of Hinduism that her detractors want to maintain. Doniger’s self-reflexive acknowledgement of her own selectivity within the “embarrassment of riches” that she identifies as Hinduism (and sometimes Hinduisms) becomes a further point of complaint. These opponents assume that questions have definitive answers. They acknowledge “the historical consensus,” whereas Doniger describes her book as “a history.” They consider the meaning of a text to be fixed, as expressed in the legal complaint, “When text remains the same it is obvious that its meaning & message have remained the same.” Doniger, on the other hand, acknowledges that multiple meanings are possible throughout the diversity of Hinduism.

There are some obvious parallels with the academic study of Paganism(s), which I will leave (for now) to my readers to ponder.