March 05, 2021
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No Alternative

A response to Nivedita Menon. L'affaire Doniger is not about ‘free speech’ but about going beyond the colonial ‘scholarly’ tradition.

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No Alternative

Nivedita Menon launches an intriguing and productive experiment in her article, 'The Embarrassed Modern Hindu' written in response to De Roover’s 'Untangling the Knot'. The questions she asks about the imaginary sister of the frustrated US immigrant imagined by De Roover are ones that we should not side-step. But Menon does not go far enough with her questions about this girl of the 1950s.Would this girl be excited by the ‘alternative’ readings/histories of the stories she grew up with? Menon assumes she would. Why? Because she grew up in a household completely geared towards fulfilling her brother’s needs rather than hers.

Let us grant to Menon that it is very likely that she did grow up in such a house-hold. But would that make her see the stories of Surpanakha and Sita as ‘oppressed women’ to which she wishes to draw her brother’s attention?  What makes this a poignant question is that it really isn’t as if we have to draw completely from our imagination in order to re-construct this sister Menon has posited. Our mothers/grandmothers (Menon’s own, as she herself indicates) are a fair representation of what these women thought/think of these texts and these characters. What do/did they draw from them? The ‘oppression’ inherent in ‘Hinduism’? Surely, it would be odd if they did so, and yet, read the book from beginning to end every year with great devotion, as does Menon’s own mother! What could have been simpler and more authentic for Menon to do in order to gain an insight into her imaginary girl of the 50s, but to ask her mother what she thought of Doniger’s book?

This is part of the problem De Roover points towards when he speaks of the frustration amongst some Indians about the way their culture is depicted. Why is it Menon draws only page numbers from her mother but not her understanding of these texts? The answer for feminists is always already given: that’s a generation of women who have been ‘conditioned’ by patriarchy. So patriarchy conditions women, but American Academia cannot. Isn’t it training in an academic tradition very much drawn from the West that makes Menon silence her own mother’s views on these texts? She does exactly what she implies De Roover does, silence the imaginary girl born in the 50s once she has served the purpose of drawing sympathy away from her brother. What makes patriarchy oppressive and Western academia liberatory if we learn to silence the very sources of our stories— our mothers and grandmothers/ fathers and grandfathers? Our attitude is: “Oh they know the texts, but they just don’t understand how to read them!”. Yes, and we don’t know the texts but we always already know what to make of them! Sounds suspiciously like either arrogance or folly, or what is worse— both— one compounding the other.

If the real point of Doniger’s book is, as Menon says, that “other subject positions than that of the beleaguered upper caste, upper class man have always laid claim to Hinduism”, then this is a point as banal as it may be true. Surely a culture that generated thousands of re-tellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata does not need to learn this from Doniger. (Neither does it need to learn from Dinanath Batra what the ‘correct’ versions are!) The point, however, is that these are stories re-told by communities or individuals from their perspective. What Doniger does, is to turn these stories into the source of an ‘alternative history’ of the Hindus! Doniger does not write a work of fiction. And it is here that De Roover’s point for a more scientific approach to the study of India needs to be amplified.

There is a long, and very much mainstream body of scholarship which draws a history of ancient India through completely haphazard readings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. This body of scholarship is nothing but the continuation of a colonial ‘scholarly’ tradition driven towards proving one nonsensical theory or another (from the Aryan-Dravidian divide to the ‘corruption’ of ‘Hinduism’ in the post-Vedic age). While the theories have been rejected, the tradition of scholarship they spawned remains intact. In that sense, Doniger’s is no ‘alternative history’ at all! Whether highlighting a feminist/sexual/low-caste historical perspective, the point Doniger and other scholars writing in this vein ignore is akin to this: to say that the story of Eklavya shows the position of tribals/lower castes in ancient India is like saying that the rape rate in ancient Greece is mirrored in the number of women Zeus rapes in Greek mythology. Similarly, to say that Surpanakha is the measure for how women’s sexuality was suppressed is akin to saying that Greek women were taught to give undue emphasis to virginity since Daphne preferred to be turned into a laurel tree than be taken by Apollo. What sounds patently absurd to us in one case does not strike us as in the least incongruous in another. Clearly, this has more to do with what passes as the ‘serious’ study of India as against what would be entertained as scholarship about the West.

Once we understand the primarily unscientific nature of Doniger’s work, the debate around ‘free speech’ will automatically disappear. For instance, we may ‘tolerate’ publications by Christian institutions or individuals who seek to reject the theory of evolution. But we certainly don’t teach them at University! And nobody writing such books is likely to get tenured positions in Universities. So clearly, there are standards of scientific and unscientific scholarship that even Menon would readily uphold and not confuse them with an issue of ‘free speech’. It is just that in the case of India studies, these lines have simply not been drawn! That is why practically anybody gets away with anything in the name of ‘Hinduism’ studies. Not just Doniger, but even Batra gets away with any kind of ‘knowledge claim’ that Penguin simply cannot fight. After all, as Menon says, if everybody is entitled to ‘their version’, then on what basis can Penguin fight Batra for the counter claims he makes? Thus, if anything, De Roover’s call for setting standards for the scientific research of India can only ensure that we can go beyond the shoddy notions about India that both Doniger and Batra express.

Dr Sufiya Pathan teaches at the Department of Religious Studies, University of Pardubice, Pardubice, Czech Republic

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