We look at the offensive bits of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus – An Alternative History and how banning it achieved the “Streisand Effect”

The erudite and the verbose are busy bemoaning the attack upon the right to free speech in our country, about the triumph of the intolerant in the episode of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus – An Alternative History being pulped by the publisher Penguin. There is also a lot of ranting about the archaic law that permits the banning of books and the publisher’s inability/reluctance to stand behind their author.

But what is Wendy Doniger’s book really all about? I was really interested to know, so I would know whether it was in fact offensive or whether it was just another case of us Indians being characteristically thin-skinned.   Alas since I could not order the book from my friendly nieghbourhood/online bookstore, I had to scrounge around for snippets, reviews or any real information about the book.

429px Wendy Doniger Shimer College 2012 214x300 What is Wendy Doniger’s Book About?

Wendy Doniger – author of the book The Hindus – An Alternative History

Apparently it’s all about **x

According to Dinanath Batra, the President of the rather ironically named Sikha Bachao Andolan; the group which called for the ban of this book, the book is focused on s*x and erotica and as such was offensive to Hindus. (Dinanath Batra has also initiated legal action against sex education in schools, because according to him this is against Hindu culture.)

The book is full of heresy

This is the other charge leveled by the group that called for the book to be banned – that it is  full of ‘heresies’. And here I thought that concepts such as profanation, sacrilege and heterodoxy were more the domain of the monotheistic religions rather than the plural, all encompassing and polytheistic way of life that most of us perceive Hinduism to be.

Well obviously people such as me, who have a deep respect and regard for Hinduism don’t know anything – we still have to grasp the Sikha Bachao Andolan’s view of what Hinduism is, or at least should be: far more dogmatic that the world perceives it to be. Everyone who believes in the multiplicity of this ancient faith is evidently very, very wrong –  the interpretive diversity of Hindu texts is not a strength, but a weakness that ought properly to be quashed and suppressed; lest any divergent and therefore deviant views emerge from such interpretation.

The book is full of factual inaccuracies

The book also contains shocking factual inaccuracies says the group that went to court to have the book banned. According to the book it was the RSS ideology that was responsible for the assassination and a former Swayam Sevak that actually carried out the assassination.

This is what was found to be “objectionable, defamatory and insulting” in the book:

  • that Mahatma Gandhi lay alongside women who could be considered ‘jail-bait’,
  • that Swami Vivekanand opposed caste distinction and advised people to eat beef,
  • that Rani Lakshmibai sought the help of the British when her kingdom was under threat
  • that there is no single set of rule in Hinduism to cover issues of vegetarianism, casteism or non-violence
  • there are aspersions cast upon the Sun God (Surya) and his behavior with Kunti
  • the book questions the accuracy of the incidents depicted in the Ramayana and also suggests a lustful relationship between Laxman and Sita
  • there is an ancient map in the book that doesn’t acknowledge Kashmir as a part of India
  • the cover of the book is very vulgar and indecent

It would have been nice if these inaccuracies been clarified via a rebuttal from an equally distinguished academic so that these inaccuracies were shown up for what they are and hoi polloi could learn the truth for themselves.

But Satanic Verses was banned

Those in public spheres who want to cheer that the book was banned but cannot do so openly have opined that there should be open discussion and that no books should be banned. The corollary however is this (isn’t there always?) – the principle should be uniform and there should be no ‘double standards’.

The implication is clear: Salman Rushdie’s ‘blasphemous’ novel, Satanic Verses was banned to spare the religious feelings of one community; there should be similar appeasement for other communities as well. The lunatic fringe of one community is still baying for Rushdie’s blood and still hounding him out of literary fests in our country – by all means let’s do the same to Wendy Doniger and her work for her grave transgressions.

A thought for those who sued to have the book banned

It occurs to me that at least some of those who wish the book banned may be decent, well meaning people, who are genuinely offended by the book. I myself also view most western interpretations of Indians, Indian history and Indian culture with a degree of skepticism – I feel that with the exception of authors such as William Dalrymple and Mark Tully, few western authors have the empathy, the insight and the perception needed to really opine on India. Western views are essentially coloured by an inevitably western gaze, which I have very little time for.

So I acknowledge that Wendy Doniger’s book may well be flawed; that parts of what is lauded as a fine academic effort may well be worthy of being roundly debunked. But banning the book served no real purpose.

 What did the ban accomplish?

Those that wanted the book banned however have accomplished the following:

a)      A book that few outside academic circles had heard about, is now a No 1 bestseller on Amazon

b)      People are speaking about Hindu fundamentalism and intolerance from arguably one of the most tolerant religious communities in the world

c)       The inability of our authorities to offer protection to writers and artists as been  laid bare – yet again

d)      The Streisand Effect has been achieved – the book is still being secretly and furtively sold – the demand for Wendy Doniger’s other books has sky rocketed like never before. She herself has been catapulted into the limelight; going from a name known only to academics to a household name in matter of days

e)      The incident has given the so called intelligentsia one more reason to be outraged and to heap scorn upon those they perceive as low-brow

f)       The outcry that erupted after the banning of the book has reassured me of the vibrant and robust democracy that is India; that I as an Indian am free to voice my (many) opinions

g)      It gave Anundhati Roy one more chance to get up on to her soap box

By – Reena Daruwalla

See also:

Penguin Agrees to “Pulp” a Book: End of Free Speech?

Should Doctors Have the Right to Refuse to Treat Patients?

Is Public Display of Affection Un-Indian ?

Image Courtesy – Wikipedia

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