Author Resigned to Ill Fate of Book in India
After Penguin Books India recently decided to recall and pulp all copies of “The Hindus: An Alternative History” in the face of legal action, the book’s author, Wendy Doniger, was not surprised.
“I kept hoping we might win the lawsuit, but it was looking bad,” she said on Friday.
Ms. Doniger, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, expected the book to meet trouble in India. For the edition published there in 2010, she said, she and her editors worked “to take out things we thought might be particularly offensive to Hindus, to not thumb our nose at them.” The changes to the book, which came out in the United States in 2009, weren’t substantive, she said in an interview, “but we changed some of the wording and softened some things that would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
Penguin’s decision settled a case involving Section 295a of the Indian penal code, which outlaws acts “intended to outrage religious feelings.” The withdrawal of Ms. Doniger’s work comes against the backdrop of the looming general elections, in which the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., is expected to win significant gains over the Congress party.
Ms. Doniger noted that she wasn’t the only author to face scrutiny by Hindu fundamentalist groups. But “right now people are really worried about what’s happening in India,” she said, and that has spurred “this tremendous outpouring of indignation” about the fate of her book.
In “The Hindus,” Ms. Doniger wanted “to tell a story of Hinduism that’s been suppressed and was increasingly hard to find in the media and textbooks,” she said. “It’s not about philosophy, it’s not about meditation, it’s about stories, about animals and untouchables and women. It’s the way that Hinduism has dealt with pluralism.”
The novelist Hari Kunzru said in an email interview that Ms. Doniger’s work “emphasizes that Hinduism has never existed as a single pure orthodoxy.” Instead, he said, Ms. Doniger shows how “it emerges from many linked traditions and folk practices.”
Ms. Doniger said of her source material, “I didn’t make this stuff up,” adding, “The stories are very human, and the gods are very interesting, because they have emotions, and they get in trouble and commit adultery.”
Mr. Kunzru said Ms. Doniger’s opponents were “particularly exercised by her wish to reinstate sexuality at the center of Hinduism.” The original legal complaint, filed by Dinanath Batra of the group Shiksha Bachao Andolan, described a “hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light” and called Ms. Doniger’s approach to Hinduism “that of a woman hungry of sex.”
One example of the material for which Ms. Doniger has come under fire is her writing about the Shiva linga, a large stone image that appears in many Shiva temples and is worshiped with offerings of water and flowers. Ms. Doniger approaches the linga as an abstract symbol and as the sexual organ of the god Shiva. (As she writes in “The Hindus,” “sometimes a linga is just a linga — or, more often, both a linga and a cigar.”) She compared its dual meaning to that of the cross in Christianity: “To say that the Shiva linga has nothing to do with the body of Shiva is the same as saying the cross has nothing to do with the passion of Christ, it only means God and love.”
Mr. Kunzru, who faced legal action after reading excerpts from Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2012, said he saw the fate of Ms. Doniger’s book in light of more than two decades of trouble for artistic expression in India, from the banning of Mr. Rushdie’s novel in 1988 to a controversy in 2011 over a biography of Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The New York Times. Mr. Kunzru said he did worry that if Narendra Modi, the B.J.P. candidate for prime minister, is elected in May, extremists would “feel empowered to attack” writers, artists and scholars.
“It’s very easy to claim offense and very hard to prove that someone else wasn’t offended,” he said. “There’s a competitive market for offense in India. Religious and political groups want to show they’re serious about defending their sectional interests, and the law makes it easy for people to grandstand, particularly at election time.”
In the wake of Penguin’s decision, authors including Arundhati Roy publicly criticized the publisher. Ms. Doniger expressed frustration with Penguin’s parent company, Bertelsmann, but stands by her publisher. “I’m so sorry that a great deal of the anger that this has happened has been directed against Penguin India,” she said. “They took the book on in the first place, and four years ago, there had already been demonstrations in New York, when I was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.”
Last week, the circle released a statement expressing its “concern and disappointment” over the “deplorable” decision to take “The Hindus” out of the market.
Asked if she could sympathize at all with those offended by her work, Ms. Doniger said: “In general, I don’t like people saying nasty things about other people’s religion, but this is something else. This is fundamentalism, which says that parts of its own religion are bad. In a sense, I’m defending their religion, and they’re attacking it.”
Ms. Doniger said she had no plans officially to protest the decision in India. She expressed gratitude for the “good run” the book had there. Its fortunes in the United States have been bolstered by the recent controversy, which sent the book shooting toward the top of Amazon’s best-seller ranks.
Ms. Doniger’s latest book, “On Hinduism,” a collection of essays, is in its second printing in India and will be published in the United States in March by Oxford University Press. She is also the editor of a forthcoming Norton anthology of primary Hindu writings, due out in November, and for which she’s “anticipating trouble.”
“It’s not me, I’m collecting these texts,” she said. “It’s the texts these people won’t like. I’ve made a point of putting in a lot of them, so people will see Hinduism is both the thing Batra and company say it is and what I say it is.”
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