These are grim times for scholars who study India. For years, in both India and the US, the RSS and its allies have bullied and attacked scholars of ancient history and religion who do not portray the past and the gods according to their narrow orthodoxy. What is different now is that the politics of fear is in the ascendant. People previously committed to open scholarship and public debate are running for the hills. And now, with the withdrawal and pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, the bullies have scored a major victory. Penguin, after fighting the legal case against Doniger for four years, suddenly folded, saying that it would be difficult to continue defending Doniger without “deliberately placing themselves outside the law” — the law in question being Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which forbids “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens”.
Penguin’s claim is ridiculous. The lawsuit is extremely weak. It is poorly written and argued, contains absurd errors (even the purported quotes from the book are inaccurate), and its attempt to satisfy the law’s demand for malicious intent is childish — accusing Doniger, a secular Jew, of “Christian missionary zeal” and suggesting that her historically accurate references to sexual elements in the tradition were motivated by her being “a woman hungry of sex”. Ironically, the parts of the book that, according to the lawsuit, show Hinduism in a bad light are simply parts that are true and there: the Hindu tradition is replete with non-judgemental allusions to a variety of sexual desires and activities, including those of the gods, whether the new Hindu fundamentalists like this or not. So how could anyone be convicted of defaming a religion simply because she points to texts that some people would rather forget? As Doniger said recently in The New York Times, the shoe is on the other foot: it is they who say parts of their own religion are bad, whereas she admires Hinduism’s treatment of sexuality as natural and beautiful.
Indeed, even a cursory study of Doniger’s career would reveal a passionate love of Hinduism, combined with scholarship of the highest order. Doniger, a woman of boundless energy, humour and joie de vivre, can be found teaching approximately double the required load, so eager is she to make sure that the major texts are taught in their original languages. She describes her career as motivated by a dissatisfaction with the narrowness and rigour of other religions, and a fascination with Hinduism’s more variegated and tolerant portrayal of human beings and the conflicts they face — “the difficulty of being good”, as Gurcharan …continued »