Scholarship or Sacrilege?

The decision to honor a work in religious studies has provoked controversy. Scott McLemee meditates on the protest.

March 17, 2010

Wendy Doniger, a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, has drawn the ire of some Hindus who regard her scholarship as sacrilegious. During a lecture in London in 2003, someone in the audience threw an egg at Doniger to express disagreement with her interpretation of a passage in the Ramayana, a sacred epic.

The egg did not connect. But it proved that she had her audience’s attention. So does the response to her book The Hindus: An Alternative History, published last year by Penguin. In January, the National Book Critics Circle named it as one of five finalists in nonfiction for 2009. Around 30 protesters gathered outside the Tishman auditorium of New School University in New York when Doniger appeared with other finalists who were reading from their books at a public event. Countless others (well, thousands anyway) had signed petitions calling for Penguin to withdraw The Hindus from the market. Clearly "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is not a Vedic principle.

The reading went without incident -- thanks, in part, to the presence of the New School's security guards, who all appeared to be at least six feet tall. One would not have wanted to try to sneak an egg past them. The next day, when I joined my fellow board members to vote on the awards, the protest barely merited a mention.

That came as a surprise, albeit a pleasant one. Over the past six weeks or so, I have been the recipient of scores of aggrieved letters about the many crimes of Wendy Doniger. Her book was a work of hate literature. It was full of mistakes. Recognition of it would aid the international Muslim conspiracy. Doniger is obsessed with sex. All Hindus everywhere were outraged. Did I mean to provoke a clash of civilizations?

Now, dear reader, I am but a middle-aged man with strong glasses and no very settled attitude regarding the ontological status of the sacred and the profane, and the last thing in the world I want on my conscience is global cultural warfare.

A few Hindus wrote to say that they admired Wendy Doniger's book, so never mind the protesters. But they were few and far between. The denunciations were repetitious and sometimes very imaginative. It was often clear that the letter writer had never actually been in the same room as a copy of The Hindus, let alone read any of it. Calling it a "porno book,” as some indignant parties did, seemed likely to yield unanticipated consequences. I imagined an eager 14-year old searching its almost 800 pages and finding only intellectual stimulation.

Doniger's book is a work of popularization and synthesis, but it performs those functions under a distinctly scholarly protocol. Her approach is to focus on the interaction, across the centuries, between the codified layer of belief found in the Sanskrit scriptures and various local forms of Hinduism. The latter, in turn, consist of both oral and written strands of vernacular tradition. In other words, Doniger takes great heterogeneity (at all levels: linguistic, theological, cultural, and political) as a given.

Sexuality is commonly found in folklore and secular writing, and it is an aspect (if not the only one) of the material Doniger examines. Some of the Hindu gods and goddesses are frisky, like their Greek and Roman colleagues. The elongated stone figure of the linga associated with Lord Shiva can be interpreted as a pillar of light, but it is hardly a case of Freudian enthusiasm to note its resemblance to an erect penis. And indeed there are believers who can accept this without suffering any cognitive dissonance.

Others, obviously, can’t. This is by no means a situation found only among Hindus. There are Christians who will insist that the “Song of Solomon” is to be understood strictly as an allegory of Christ’s love for the church. They would be very upset if you pointed out its resemblance to the lyrics from a Barry White record. This seems too ascetic by half, an impoverishment of the actual.

Lists of supposed errors in The Hindus have been circulated -- many of them minor, and some based on inaccurate paraphrases of what Doniger actually wrote.

There are, to be sure, cases of actual problems, such as when Doniger two different sets of dates for the life and death of the poet Mirabai. I wish that sort of thing still shocked me. But long exposure to the work of academics tends to dispel any notion that they are more accurate than, say, journalists. Sorry, that's just the way it is. Last month I read a book by an Ivy League professor who referred to the global impact when Khruschev gave his 1961 speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin. (A decent "Jeopardy" contestant might be expected to know that the speech took place in 1956.) For Doniger to have made various small citation errors, or to have attributed the doings of one emperor to another, seems par for the course in a book of several hundred pages.

While a few things should be fixed in the next edition, The Hindus seems destined to have a long life. It is capacious, like its subject. Her point -- very simply put -- is that any differences between Hindus and non-Hindus are already inscribed within the tradition itself.

The past, she writes, can be enlisted “for almost any position in contemporary India: that Hindus have been vegetarians, and that they have not; that Hindus and Muslims have gotten along well together, and that they have not; that Hindus have objected to suttee, and that they have not; that Hindus have renounced the material world, and that they have embraced it; that Hindus have oppressed women and lower castes, and that they have fought for their equality.”

Tension, then, is intrinsic to the cultural legacy. This seems like an enriching perspective, though clearly it is not always a welcome one.

The most interesting perspective on l’affaire Doniger that I have seen was published last week in The Hindustan Times, in a column by Ashok Malik.

Malik points to the recent case of M. F. Husain, an Indian painter who was driven into exile by the furor over his nude portraits of certain goddesses. Malik attributes the campaign against Doniger to a new sort of activist, “the internet Hindu,” who blogged and tweeted with excitement about the victory over Husain -- then went looking for more excitement. The infrastructure of indignation sprang into action when the NBCC decided to name The Hindus: An Alternative History as a finalist.

The columnist made a canny assessment of how the "internet Hindu" campaign looked to those on the receiving end of it: “If a book award judge received these letters, and knew nothing about the context of the controversy, he would probably fear for the author as the victim of a hate group attack. Far from being an unsympathetic student of Hinduism -- which is obviously how Internet Hindus see her -- Doniger would come out resembling Joan of Arc.”

Quite right. I will admit that after a while, it became very tempting to cast my vote for Doniger in spite of preferring another book. I wanted to aim my water, so to speak, not at the blaze itself, but at those setting it. But that seemed too irritable. The protesters had a right to protest -- and the book critic, an obligation to ignore them.

As it turned out, the award for nonfiction went instead to Richard Holmes for The Age of Wonder. It seems from the Twitter, blog, and e-mail chatter that the protesters have congratulated themselves over this, taking it to be a repudiation of Doniger. That is absurd, if quite predictable. We do not discuss the deliberations that go into making the final decision on the awards. But suffice it to say that we stand by the nomination of The Hindus as one of the finalists for 2009. It is an excellent work that deserves a large audience.

And to add my own last two cents on the matter (whether or not anyone else agrees): The rancor a book generates is sometimes its own mark of distinction.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top