You don’t always get what you wished for, but if Doniger wanted a fight with 300 million Hindus with access to the internet, she definitely got it.
Contrary to what we are sometimes made to believe, publishing houses, like any other business, do not steer the course of history, and neither do governments. Both choose to respond to historical forces already in motion, and the consequence of their choice enters a continuous feedback loop. History continues to unfold, and once the bigger picture emerges, in the courte or longue durée, we get to see who stood on which side of the line dividing reason and blindness. In the current discussion and debates surrounding Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism, neither Penguin India nor the Indian government is as relevant as the forces which continue to shape global Hinduism, as we speak.
I read the book in 2009 shortly after it was published, in between other books. I have frequently used Wendy Doniger’s translation of the Rigveda and the Laws of Manu in class. Being familiar with her scholarship in general, I was both impressed and mildly disappointed by The Hindus: An Alternative History. The scope of the tome is simply breathtaking, in its thoroughness, its flawless scholarship, and the ease with the multitudes of texts that make prolonged or cameo appearances in the book. My mild disappointment came from the combative slant and the hyped pitch. The book contains little new data or theory to offer to scholars, researchers, and students who are familiar with the thousand contradictions Hinduism is made of. There is no rule or wisdom in Hinduism, either in ritual or theory, without exceptions, or, to use Doniger’s title, alternatives. Not only is unconventional not unusual in the historical development of Hinduism; the unconventional is more of a norm. If Hindus try to substantiate their claims to convention of any kind, they will not succeed, by a long shot. The range of contradictions which have been accepted and nurtured in that tradition, and have never actually been redacted from the texts is simply staggering. Doniger simply picked the only honestly possible history of the Hindus. Why did she claim it as an alternative history? Was it to put a critical distance between the observer and the subject of study? There was no need to do that for the sake of the critical readers; that would be preaching to the choir. Did she do it then to pick a fight with hoi polloi? You don’t always get what you wished for, but if Doniger wanted a fight with 300 million Hindus with access to the internet, she definitely got it.
While we— who know that the image of neither the practicing Hindu nor Hinduism was tarnished by the book— want the book to reach the readers worldwide, most of us are concerned about something much bigger than the book or even the battle over books in India. The unnecessary noise— no matter how long it lingers on the social media—will in no way define Doniger’s scholarly career. Her work as a Sanskritist will survive well beyond her Alternative History’s sensationalisation, and her legacy will be secure. And if we want to situate this issue in the context of the deterioration of rights of expression in India, it will have to stand in a long line, behind more immediate contenders. The question at hand is the public discourse on Hinduism. Who controls it, and how? What is going to become of Hinduism vis-à-vis the global network of knowledge, privilege, and political power?
There is no way to measure and predict the sensitivity of a people, especially in matters of faith. In the case of Hinduism, faith comes intertwined with another sensitive allegiance, nationalism. The history of Hinduism is now inextricably linked to the history of India’s rise as a global economic power. The political reality of India being infinitely more complicated than that reflected in the official adjectives such as ‘incredible’ or ‘shining’, Hinduism has arisen as the signifier par excellence for national pride among the global Hindu bourgeoisie. The closer the relationship progresses between this vocal Hindu bourgeoisie and Hindutva forces in India, the sheer magnitude of any discourse produced in the interface between these two defeats successfully every other voice of reason, sensibility, and correctness. This is unconventional, not Doniger’s History: the way the Hindu bourgeoisie today is redacting its own thousands of years of cultural history. Interestingly, the only hope lies in the unconventional lack of editing of Hindu texts. It is only a matter of time that they or their children will pick the better alternative, and will actually try reading the texts, perhaps starting with Wendy Doniger’s translation of the verses from the Rig Veda, and discover the thousand contradictions, alternatives, and unconventionalities that make up the Hindu religion.
Rini Bhattacharya Mehta is Assistant Professor, Program in Comparative and World Literature, Department of Religion, Affiliate in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois, USA