Wendy Doniger’s book and the free speech problem

Photo credit: indiatoday.intoday.in

Photo credit: indiatoday.intoday.in

The decision of Penguin India to withdraw and trash copies of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, has offended many. People like Arundhati Roy are shocked to know of Penguin’s decision and are asking genuine and pertinent questions. Almost every prominent columnist has already written a piece on the issue, expressing the fear liberalism is facing, blaming both the right- and left-wing extremism. On the contrary, right-wing fanatics are celebrating the withdrawal and screaming their success on social media sites.

So while the usual process is on, what is missing from the whole discourse is the emphasis on the works that have scrutinized the works of Wendy Doniger and her attitude towards those works. Doniger has adopted to continuously ignoring gross errors pointed out by others. Published in 2007, the book Invading The Sacred: An Analysis Of Hinduism Studies In America challenged not only the studies of Doniger, but also her counterpart, Paul Courtright, among others. But Doniger maintains that her books are only castigated by Hindutva forces, completely ignoring the exposé of her gross blunders and misleading interpretations. And even if her book is challenged by the hardliners of Hindutva on the basis of facts, what is wrong in answering their apprehensions and concerns?

But leave aside the scholars and hardliners and their refutations, even an average Indian, irrespective of the religion, can easily find the apparent errors in the book. Whether Doniger knows about the traditions of entire India or not is unknown, but her claim in the book “now throughout India generally only the lower castes perform animal sacrifices (as the Vedic people did), while Brahmins perform vegetarian versions of Vedic sacrifices” is an absolute and astonishing lie. In a great part of the state of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, even Brahmins sacrifice animals, forget other ‘upper castes’.

Doniger further writes that Kama Sutra and Artha Shastra have “no mention of Vedic rituals”. This is not only ridiculous, it demonstrates the trivial references of her arguments. While Kama Sutra is a literature on human sexual behaviour, Artha Shastra deals with diplomacy, economic policy-making and military strategy. One also wonders the intention of writing ‘because Rama is afraid of turning into a sex-addict like his father, he throws Sita out after enjoying sex with her’. The interpretation in itself offers absolute imbalance of connections. She has no explanation as to how she deduced that Rama’s father was sex-addict in the first place, leave aside the fear of Rama becoming a sex-addict and the circumstances in which Sita was thrown out.

Hinduism is a religion that has immense diversity. Unlike other prevalent and influential religions of the world, Islam, Christianity or Judaism, it has no one holy book or God. Devoted liberal Hindus take pride in practising diversity. Take for example the Ramayana. More than three hundred versions of Ramayana exist. For Doniger, Valmiki Ramayana, which she has used in her book, can be the original and definitive version but for a large number of Hindus, it is not. In fact, there is no tussle among Hindus to insist on one version of Ramayana and declare it as the authoritative version. So when Doniger prefers to select one version of it, she should ponder over the larger implications attached with it. More importantly, it becomes her responsibility as a distinguished scholar to first state as to why she used only that very Ramayana for her arguments and ignored all the others. Doniger has written a book on one narrative of Hinduism, ignoring multiple other available narratives. Is she selective? Or she wanted to improvise? Or she wants to put her version of Hinduism?

While it is important to maintain free speech, it is also equally important to examine and rebuke blatant lies, distortion of available evidence and being selective about that, and baseless interpretations. There is no denying the fact that the book should not have been withdrawn and pulped. Individual freedom and free speech must always be advocated. But should there be no limit of that? Also, the decision to withdraw the book has come from the publisher. The publisher could have chosen a different path than withdrawing and destroying the copies. So blame the mob for intolerance, but also damn the publisher for running away from a hard and long legal battle.

One thought on “Wendy Doniger’s book and the free speech problem

  1. Bringing the “alternative thought” into the forum is most welcome but definitely authors should draw a line between blatant abuse and free speech. Well researched works loaded with facts have always influenced the discourse of common beliefs and paradigms and have changed them too. But the ‘work’ ought to be meaningful, and not ‘critical’ just for the sake of it.

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