Sanskrit scholar and Indologist Wendy Doniger, whose book The Hindus: An Alternative History is back on the shelves — courtesy a new publishing house, Speaking Tiger — after it was controversially recalled in 2014. Doniger will be talking on “The Power of the Myth” over Skype at the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai today. Excerpts from an e-mail interview with her:
What is it about Indian myths and epics that continues to hold our attention?
The great Sanskrit epics are about people who, though they lived long ago, are imagined so brilliantly that we feel for them even today. There are so many wonderful stories woven into the main plot that there is always something new when we return to these great texts.
Sanskrit is increasingly becoming a contentious subject, with attempts being made to use it as a tool to present a homogenised view of ancient India.
Sanskrit is a rich and fascinating language, and Sanskrit literature is wonderfully complex and deep. There is great irony in the attempt to use it to exclude rather than include the many ideas that it has produced over the centuries. Sanskrit has been used to express a wide range of ideas; to pretend that there is nothing in Sanskrit but the Bhagavad Gita or even the Upanishads is to deny the greatness of the Indian literary tradition. Finally, to require non-Hindus to accept Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit (or any language) is to violate the principles of democracy on which the Indian nation was based.
Do you feel you could have got more support from the community of Sanskrit scholars and historians in India, as well as your publisher, Penguin, when your book was banned?
My book was never actually banned; the government took no stand on it at all. A small group of Hindu men brought a lawsuit against me and Penguin, India. I am very grateful to my publishers for defending the book for more than four years. It was pressure from the larger conglomerate that bought Penguin, India, that finally caused them to give up the defence of the book. I am grateful to the many Sanskritists and historians who protested that action. Penguin Random House have given me back the rights to the Indian publication of the book, and I have given those rights to a new publishing house, Speaking Tiger. This week, Speaking Tiger has republished The Hindus: An Alternative History and made a paperback edition available. I have nothing but gratitude for my publishers.
The controversy erupted when a government, that was seen as being liberal, was in power in India. Do you feel there’s been any difference between then and now, in terms of how quickly offence is taken at alternative or dissenting views?
The legal action against my book took place in 2010, before the BJP won the last parliamentary election. I feel that the atmosphere of censorship has grown much worse under the present government, whose failure to condemn acts of violence against writers and artists who are deemed, by any individual, to have offended Hinduism, has greatly intimidated publishers and individual writers.
In your opinion, how does the current political climate bode for research in the areas, such as classics, history, religion and language?
I am encouraged by the recent action of a number of writers in handing back their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest. If this movement gathers strength, it will mean that the people of India are not willing to stand by and watch the destruction of their cultural heritage and the sanitising and bowdlerising of works of history, religion, literature or anything else.
Could writers be doing more than returning their awards? Do you feel that they have ceded the liberal space by not protesting earlier?
The main thing that writers can do is go on writing in the spirit of diverse opinion and imaginative artistic expression that has been the glory of India for centuries. There is no point in looking back to missed opportunities. In looking ahead, I feel, can vague and punitive laws that have been used to prosecute and, indeed, persecute writers and artists be challenged and, if possible, defanged. That is the way to protect the liberal space.