How My Book Entered India’s Contest and Conflict Over Hinduism

When publishers in India agreed to stop publishing my book, they helped push the problems of fundamentalist Hinduism to the world stage.

In 2009, Penguin Books in New York published a book of mine, The Hindus: An Alternative History.In 2010, Penguin India published the book in India, and within months a man named Dina Nath Batra, a then-81-year-old member of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement, brought the first of a series of civil and criminal actions against me and Penguin Books, arguing that my book violated Article 295a of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class” of Indian citizens. Penguin India drafted its lawyers to defend the suit, but after four years, on February 10, 2014, they abandoned the case, agreeing to cease publishing the book.

And it does not stop there. On May 12, the New York Times quoted Pramod Kumar — an RSS propagandist — who said that “Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, recently withdrawn from publication in India, ‘should not be out in the Western press.’”

But what happened this year was not a bad thing but a good thing: the attacks from the Hindu Right on me and on other authors had been going on for over a decade, and what Mr. Batra did was to catapult the problem over the top and onto the world stage, where people finally decided to do something to combat it.

What was the basis of the objections to my book? The argument has roots deep in Indian history.

Among all the many different strains of Hinduism, two conflicting tendencies have been particularly important for thousands of years: one is the dominant strain of the householder life, of ritual, of celebration of life, of family, of children, of sexuality, of food and poetry and sculpture and the worship of many gods; and another is the strain of the renunciation of the household life, of philosophy, of the drive to become released from the cycle of rebirth through denial of the senses, of family life, of children. At first, these two paths offered available options for most Hindus; as permeable boundaries, they challenged and nourished one another. But when the British colonized India, they rejected as filthy paganism the sensuous strain of ritual, polytheistic Hinduism, and respected the more ascetic strain of philosophy, including Indian monism and idealism and the Bhagavad Gita, on the whole a more reasonable sort of religion.

The many English-speaking Hindus who worked for and with the British came to accept the British evaluation of Hinduism. Now, for the first time, one form of Hinduism was valued and the other form devalued. But even then, this sanitized strain of Hinduism, also sometimes called Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Law, was just one form among many, and a minor strain at that, which thrived primarily among the middle castes.

Then, in the twentiethcentury, the Sanatana Dharma Hindus learned a new trick from American Fundamentalists, something that had never before been the custom in India: they denied the authenticity of the parts of their own religion that they had learned to be ashamed of. Now one form of Hinduism tried to outlaw the other. This movement, which also took on a strong Nationalist hue, began to call itself Hindutva, “Hinduness,” and the people who preach it call themselves Hindutvavadis, “those who speak of Hindutva.”

When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 1999, they instituted a policy of censorship of all the textbooks in India, and the man they put in charge of that project was Dina Nath Batra, the man who has now attacked my books. (Batra was at that time general secretary of the Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan.)The revisions that he made included the claim “that the Taj Mahal, the Qu’tb Minar and the Red Fort, three of India’s outstanding examples of Islamic architecture, were designed and commissioned by Hindus,” wrote Randeep Ramesh in the Guardian. More significant than what was added was what was taken out. According to Mushirul Hasan, awkward facts, “like the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindu nationalist in 1948, were simply left out of some textbooks. . . .Even to mention — let alone to discuss or explore — beef eating in ancient India … [was] denounced as evidence of unpatriotism and of Christian-Muslim designs.” They also deleted passages about the history and function of the caste system.

I have taken it upon myself to put these parts of Hinduism back into the picture, and that’s where I run headlong into the Hindutvavadis.

Eroticism was a valued part of the brand of Hinduism that the British officially rejected. Sanatana Dharma has a strong puritanical bent. (The RSS requires a vow of celibacy for its full-time fundraisers). Many Hindus today do not want to be reminded of the erotic aspects of their own texts. But what a culture forgets — or chooses not to see — is often just as important as what it remembers. “Your approach is that of a woman hungry of sex,” was one of the accusations in the Batra legal document.

A news item in the Sunday Express, New Delhi, February 15, 2014, linked the calls for tolerance made by the President of India as he inaugurated the New Delhi World Book Fair in 2014 with a clash of activists protesting about my book at the Fair. The article said: “Days after Penguin withdrew Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, President Pranab Mukherjee said Saturday that India’s pluralism is its greatest strength and the country’s history and traditions have always celebrated the ‘argumentative’ Indian rather than the ‘intolerant’ Indian.”

Hours later, students and academics protesting against Penguin’s decision were attacked by RSS activists, and the police had to intervene. Will the police continue to intervene now that Narenda Modi has been elected?

Image: The Ashtalakshmi Kovil / Ashta lakshmi Temple in Chennai.

Wendy Doniger
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  • RJ

    Even if you do have a nascent understanding of this dichotomy within Hinduism, and even if you have the insight that the Brits were the ones to skew this dichotomy firmly in one direction, you still haven’t really understood it – you make a distinction between the rigorous philosophy, like the Gita, and the more organic, joyful parts of Hinduism, but each is contained within the other and from your essay, it seems you still have a ways to go.

    Also, you write: “I have taken it upon myself to put these parts of Hinduism back into the picture, and that’s where I run headlong into the Hindutvavadis.”

    Why would Indians listen to you? You have no ‘street cred’, as it were, in the Hindu community. Doing some traveling and writing a book are not legitimate credentials. If you’d really like to synthesize the disparate parts of Hinduism, live as a Hindu and see what it’s like for yourself, because whatever judgments you pass down from your ivory tower will be received skeptically otherwise.

  • Martin Hughes

    I’m sorry that your efforts to study a subject impartially and objectively should have been met with such unpleasant rhetoric, censorship and violence. Mind you, I’m not sure that we Brits were really so keen to suppress the erotic side of Hinduism. There’s an awful lot of eroticism in all those stereotypes of the mysterious East.