L'Affaire Doniger
The Embarrassed Modern Hindu
Jakob De Roover’s empathetic account of the imagined ‘Hindu boy with intellectual inclinations’ born in the 1950s needs to be read with another imagined growing child: the Hindu boy's sister.
COMMENTS PRINT

Perhaps the clearest statement on what exactly it is in Wendy Doniger’s work that bothers some people—and who these people are—is outlined in Jakob De Roover’s empathetic account of the imagined ‘Hindu boy with intellectual inclinations’ born in the 1950s.  This boy grows up going to the temple, hearing stories about Bhima’s strength, Krishna’s appetite, Durvasa’s temper. If you were this boy,

Perhaps you rejoice when Rama rescues Sita, feel afraid when Kali fights demons, or cry when Drona demands Ekalavya’s thumb as gurudakshina.

The boy goes to school and learns about caste discrimination in Hinduism (that he had to go to school to learn about caste discrimination establishes his own caste position very clearly).  This makes

You feel bad about your “backward religion” and ashamed about “the massive injustice of caste.”

But

You sense that it misrepresents you and your traditions—it distorts your practices, your people, and your experience…Everywhere you turn, people just reproduce the same story about Hinduism and caste as the worst thing that ever happened to humanity: politicians, activists, teachers, professors, newspapers, television shows… They may add some qualifications but to no avail. After spending a few years in America, you return to India, get married, and have two kids. They come home from school with questions about “the wrongs of Hinduism and the caste system.” You don’t know what to tell them. Your frustration and anger rise to boiling point. You feel betrayed by the intellectual classes.

Your daughter meanwhile grows up and gains admittance to a PhD programme in religious studies at an Ivy League university.  But because she points out ‘factual howlers and flawed translations in the works of eminent American scholars of Hinduism’, she is branded Hindutvavaadi and exiled to

some university in small-town Virginia, where she feels so isolated and miserable that she decides to return to India.

The poor thing. What a sad story of failure. She had to ‘return to India’! The very India that is the home of proud Hindus, but so much more romantic when viewed from another continent, while being paid in dollars.

And all because Hinduism is misrepresented by powerful American scholars.

One does wonder about how imaginary this slowly aging boy is, when concrete and incongruous details are offered up—’Your father is indifferent to most of this stuff, but then he is very moody so you prefer to stay away from him in any case.’ That indifferent moody father, this sad defeated daughter whose sign of failure is her return to India—is this an existing person you’re supposed to imagine being…? Since De Roover genuflects to SN Balgangadhar right in the beginning, from whose work, he says, he derives his perspective, one may be forgiven for wondering if it is Balagangadhar’s pain he is ventriloquizing.

And why is this very specific subject position something that any Hindu is supposed to be able to occupy so easily and empathetically?

Despite all of this, there is no doubt that De Roover offers a much more sophisticated version of Dinanath Batra’s fulminations against Doniger. He identifies a Christian distaste for pagan practices and traditions (identifiable by frank engagement with sexuality) in a long line of colonial and later scholarship on Hinduism. He accepts that Messrs. Batra and Co. have unfortunately internalized this colonial, western  critique and that

the grips of Victorian morality have made these Hindus ashamed of a beautiful dimension of their traditions.

Nevertheless, he holds that

Wendy Doniger’s work builds on this tradition [i.e. the connection established between Hinduism and sexuality, based in a Christian frame that served to distinguish pagan idolaters from true believers.] Like some of her predecessors, she appreciates the sexual freedom involved, but then she also tends to stress two aspects: sex and caste. This is not a coincidence, for these always counted as two major properties allowing Western audiences to appreciate the supposed inferiority of Hinduism. In other words, the sense that the current depiction of Indian traditions in terms of caste and sex is connected to earlier Christian critiques of false religion cannot be dismissed so easily.

However, he is of the opinion that banning or withdrawal of books is not the answer. What is?

The entirely indigenous, proud Hindu category of ‘scientific research’! In a passage more aridly framed within a western social science tradition than the most mainstream Political Scientist could have achieved, De Roover says

To cope with complex cases like these, the first step should take the form of scientific research. The disagreement with the work of Doniger and other scholars can be expressed in a reasonable manner. The theoretical poverty and shoddy way of dealing with facts and translations exhibited by such works can be challenged on cognitive grounds. This is the only way to alleviate the frustration of our Hindu gentleman (a grandfather by now) and to illuminate the intellectual concerns of his daughter. In any case, we need to appreciate how the current story about Hinduism and caste continues to reproduce ideas derived from Christianity and its conceptual frameworks. As long as we keep selling the experience that one form of life (Western culture) has had of another (Indian culture) as God-given truth, the current conflict will not abate and our understanding of India will not progress.

So when Doniger writes about  sexual elements of Hindu texts, she is not celebrating this aspect (as De Roover, Balagangadhar and other un-fettered Hindus are) but trying to denigrate Hinduism the way a long Christian tradition has. Doniger is selling Western culture over Hindu culture, that’s what she is up to. And we have to take De Roover’s word for that. By no means believe Doniger when she says that her book Hindus. An Alternative History 

highlights a narrative alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in Sanskrit …and represented in most surveys in English. It tells a story that incorporates the narratives of and about alternative people—people who, from the standpoint of most high-caste Hindu males, are alternative in the sense of otherness, people of other religions, or cultures, or castes, or species (animals), or gender (women). Part of my agenda in writing an alternative history is to show how much the groups that conventional wisdom says were oppressed and silenced and played no part in the development of the tradition—women, Pariahs (oppressed castes, sometimes called Untouchables)—did actually contribute to Hinduism. My hope is not to reverse or misrepresent the hierarchies, which remain stubbornly hierarchical, or to deny that Sanskrit texts were almost always subject to a final filter in the hands of the male Brahmins…who usually composed and preserved them. But I hope to bring in more actors, and more stories, upon the stage, to show the presence of brilliant and creative thinkers entirely off the track beaten by Brahmin Sanskritists and of diverse voices that slipped through the filter, and, indeed, to show that the filter itself was quite diverse, for there were many different sorts of Brahmins; some whispered into the ears of kings, but others were dirt poor and begged for their food every day. (P 1 of the Penguin Edition, 2011)

This is precisely the problem. Whether sophisticated scholars like Balgangadhar and De Roover, trying to make Hinduism look good in the West; or ordinary upper caste men like Dinanath Batra, feeling the existential anxiety produced by tides of unruly women, lower castes, and multiple and heterogeneous practices that call themselves Hindu, the real problem with Doniger is precisely that she highlights the fact that other subject positions than that of the beleaguered upper caste, upper class man have always laid claim to Hinduism.

So let us imagine another growing child— not De Roover’s boy, but his sister. She hears (and retains) some other stories that the boy chooses to forget or ignores —the cruel slashing of Surpanakha’s nose for her merely expressing desire for a young handsome man, the even more cruel abandonment of pregnant Sita, the Lakshman Rekha that she is called upon to observe every single day of her twentieth century life—imagine her excitement when on growing up and entering the world of scholarship, she comes across Indian feminist scholarship that attacks both Western Orientalist critiques of  Hinduism as well as nationalist responses that reconstruct a Golden Age before “Muslim invasions”—for instance, Uma Chakravarty’s critique of the ‘Altekerian Paradigm’. Or Iravati Karve’s Yuganta. Or Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s account of women’s Ramayanas in which Rama is a far cry from the ideal man. Village women sing “Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash’. Oh Ram, you have lost your mind. Molla, a Shudra woman in the 16th century wrote a perfect classical Ramayana, which the Brahmins did not allow to be read in the royal court. Chandrabati’s version that told the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view was criticized as a weak and incomplete text by the same arbiters of taste and morality.

Imagine this young woman trying to engage her sulky brother in dialogue as he rants about the denigration of Hinduism. Imagine the absolute lack of empathy from his side as he fulminates…

Imagine after this, the daughter of the Dalit woman who cleans the toilets of that young Hindu boy’s home. Imagine her excitement at learning, if she ever reached school, that one BR Ambedkar had torn apart the entire foundation of the religion so celebrated by the boy and his family. Or that Ranganayakamma had written a book called Ramayana The Poisonous Tree, saying we should reject it because it supports the powerful against the powerless. Or that EV Ramasami had deconstructed the story of the killing of Shambuka by Rama for daring to recite the Scriptures despite being a Shudra.

Imagine the fact that this girl would literally have been invisible to the sulky boy as the household spun silently around him on the labour of women and lower castes, as he prepared to go to America ‘for a few years.’

For De Roover and his ‘Hindu gentleman’, sexuality is not the problem, mention of caste discrimination is. By putting Christian distaste for both sexuality and caste in the same basket, De Roover is able to suggest that both critiques are tainted.  But of course, some of us may want to take a more nuanced position, celebrating sexuality and attacking caste oppression, even if critique of the latter comes exclusively from ‘the West’, which of course, it does not.

Eleven year old Muktabai,  a Dalit student at the school in Pune established by Savitribai and Jotiba Phule, gave a damn about where the critique of caste came from when she wrote in the Marathi journal Dyanodaya in 1855:

Earlier, Gokhale, Apate, Trimkaji [a series of other Brahmin surnames]…who showed their bravery by killing rats in their homes, persecuted us, not even sparing pregnant women, without any rhyme or reason. That has stopped now…Harassment and torture of mahars and mangs, common during the rule of Peshwas in Pune, has stopped…

‘Earlier’ was under the rule of the Peshwas, ‘now’ was under British colonialism. The West was her saviour from indigenous caste society.

Dinanath Batra of course, is in another category altogether from De Roover and his teacher. Batra’s assertions in the legal notice to Doniger/Penguin demonstrate vast contempt for actual Hindu practices and beliefs, with an arrogance and ignorance of Hindu traditions unmatched by any Christian missionary. It would be tedious to pull apart every argument he makes, but here are just some of the most ridiculous examples.

a) Batra: That YOU NOTICEE at page 14 has cited a passage from Valmiki’s Ramayan in which Sita accuses Laxman of wanting her for himself but has not mentioned that very passage from Valmiki Ramayana in your book.

The implication is that Doniger is making this up. Did Batra ever really even hear the story of the Ramayana, let alone read it in any language? My mother, a practising and devout Hindu, told us the story of the Ramayana many many times, (which she reads every year from beginning to end during the Malayalam month of Karkidakam, the Malayalam version written by Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan in the 17th century), and the episode in which Sita berates Lakshmana for not going to rescue Ram, being killed, as she thinks, by Mareecha, is heart-breaking. Sita throws accusation after accusation at him, and still he stands his ground, staying firm to the duty to protect her, as Ram had enjoined him to do. He finally breaks when she accuses him of wanting her for himself, and leaves her in the protection of the Lakshmana Rekha. This is in Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kanda Chapter 45, and on P 208 of Adhyatma Ramayana in the section Mareecha Nigraham, as my mother readily located over the phone for me a moment ago.

b) Batra: That YOU NOTICEE at page 669 quote a version of Ramayana in which Rama asks Laxman “do you love Sita?” in sexual sense. That YOU NOTICEE attributed this version to tribal people known as the Rajnengi Pardhan at Patangarh, Mandla district and claim that it was published in 1950. Before quoting such a distortion you and the publisher ought to have examined whether this was spread by tribals converted into Christianity as Christian missionaries are known to smear other religions.

So tribal versions of the Ramayana are produced under the influence of Christian missionaries trying to ‘smear’ Hinduism. What contempt for the non-upper caste ‘Other’! The book by Verrier Elwin cited by Doniger was published in 1950, but it relates living versions circulating in the region, for much longer. It is not a tribal version of the Ramayana produced in 1950!

c) That YOU NOTICEE at page 25, incorrectly state that “there is no Hindu canon”. That YOU NOTICEE should know the basic fundamentals of Hindu Religion which hold Vedas to be the Hindu canon as these are revered & respected by all Hindus as divine revelations.

In fact, the Upanishads, which are the later, philosophical form of the Vedas, hold the early Vedas in scant regard, as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan points out:

The  Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita are, according to the  Mundaka Upanishad, superior knowledge. They are  born of the spirit of revolt against the ceremonial portion of the Vedas. The Vedas lend colour to the doctrine that religiosity consists in the observance of the ceremonial. The Upanishads or the higher knowledge point out that the more important thing is the inner mind and right knowledge. So the Vedas, with all their appendages, are held to be inferior to the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita, which speak of the nature of the individual soul and its relation to the Eternal Reality.

(‘The Vedanta Philosophy and the Doctrine of Maya’ in International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Jul., 1914), pp. 431-451)

There is no question of the Vedas being ‘divine revelations’, not even the most devout practising Hindu would say that. But then, Batra is no practising Hindu, he has a political agenda. As Janaki Nair points out:

[A]mong the many charges Batra made against Wendy Doniger: “That the entire list of the books authored by YOU NOTICEE shows that YOU NOTICEE concentrate, focus and write on the negative aspects and evil practices prevalent in Hinduism.”

Therefore, his argument is that we should shield our young/vulnerable/women from such knowledge. Therefore, genuine terror about the Indian past underlies Batra’s recent campaign, and his success in getting Penguin to pulp the remaining copies of the 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History. What if this text actually reveals to the deracinated urban school child or NRI reader that there is much shameful ambiguity in “ancient Indian culture” to which we should be reverently and unquestionably wedded? What if women learn that contemporary Indian sexuality has deep roots in, not the Wicked West but our own ancient Indian culture?

Both with the Ramayana essay of AK Ramanujan assigned to Delhi University students that the same Dinanath Batra managed to get removed (from the formal syllabus—it is still widely taught and read), and Doniger’s book, what has been termed objectionable is the assertion that many different versions of the Ramayana and other Hindu stories exist. These intimidating and silencing moves are directed not only to the ‘Western scholar’ but towards the heterodox practices of hundreds of Hindu communities. It is never day-to-day practitioners of religion who try to silence other views of Hinduism, it is those who would like to produce ONE version of Hinduism as the only legitimate one, so as to play the politics of numbers required by elections in a representative democracy.

Devout Ram-worshipping Hindus in some parts of Vidisha, Mandsaur, Ratlam and Indore districts of Madhya Pradesh actually welcome Ravana on Dussehra, in some places as a local god; and in Mandsaur as a respected son-in-law because Mandodari, his wife, belonged to their town. Both Valmiki communities as well as Kanyakubja Brahmins of Vidisha believe Ravana to be a consummate intellectual and Shiva bhakta.

Nobody is ‘confused’ or ‘insulted’ or ‘hurt’ by this, except the likes of Dinanath Batras and KC Guptas, (the latter one of those who campaigned for the removal of Ramanujan’s essay).

The real disdain for Hindu folk tales, oral ballads and other practices of believing Hindus is shown by these Dinanath Batras and KC Guptas who are shamed and embarrassed by the glorious pagan aspects of Hinduism, and the refusal of Hindu practices to be tamed into the pallid, rigid North Indian upper caste version that is the basis of the Hindu nationalist project.

There is point in pulping Doniger – they may as well call for pulping 80 percent of Hindu practices and texts. No doubt they would like to.


This was first published in Kafila

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