On The Hindus

(This was first published on Firstpost.)

Earlier this week, Penguin India appears to have agreed to “recall and withdraw” Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. News of this decision entered the public domain last night. Today, The Hindus is trending on Twitter.

The agreement gives Penguin six months to remove The Hindus  from Indian shelves, but sites like Flipkart are already claiming the title is out of stock. From Penguin’s studied silence on the topic, it seems the publishing house was hoping it would quietly remove The Hindus from circulation without anyone noticing. With no announcement of its decision to withdraw the book, no one would know that Penguin had opted for an out of court settlement rather than filing an appeal and supporting the book and its author. Incidentally, had it not been for the triumphant glee of those who deem Doniger’s writing offensive, Penguin’s (presumed) strategy may well have worked.

Now, however, the news that The Hindus has been withdrawn is all over the news and sites where you can download pirated versions of the book are circulating freely. Clearly, it isn’t quite so easy to bury a book, even if it is written by an academic and isn’t a thumping bestseller.

It’s ironic that the ones who want to erase Doniger and her interpretations of ancient Hindu texts are devout Hindus because if there’s one thing that Hinduism is testament to, then it is the survival of stories. Over its long history, gods, goddesses, ascetics and others have grown in stature and become irrelevant. Few, however, seem to have disappeared. No matter how forgettable one may be, Hinduism doesn’t forget their stories. Often, they’re shoved out of sight, but those looking for alternative histories will find them, just as Doniger and others have.

Characters and ideas often transform from major to minor, suffering downgrades and reduced importance. But they survive and either subtly or obviously, they resist being erased. Take for example Brahma. Given India is a country with a population of more than a billion, you’d think the divine figure tagged “Creator” would be an important figure in the Hindu pantheon. However, while he is one of the Big Three of Hinduism, Brahma doesn’t command much of a following and there’s a story in the Puranas that explains why Brahma lost his worshippers.

Presumably because there wasn’t a population explosion at the time, Brahma wanted his sons to ‘engage in srishti’ (i.e. go forth and multiply by becoming householders). Narada, however, wasn’t interested in getting married and becoming a family man. He was a devotee of Vishnu and wanted to remain a celibate rishi. In effect, he chose Vishnu over Brahma. To add insult to injury, he encouraged a number of his brothers to disobey Brahma and opt for celibacy.

Brahma, furious with Narada’s refusal to follow his lead, cursed his son to eternally wander the earth and have no resting place. Not one to take things lying down, Narada responded with a counter curse upon Brahma – the divine creator would lose his following and there would soon come a time when no one would worship Brahma or offer him any sacrifices.

Both father and son’s curses came true. Narada is the eternal nomad and Brahma quickly lost his following as far as devotees were concerned. However, one could argue that Brahma’s perspective lives on in stories even if the rituals of his worship have been lost. Take the Ramayana for instance. There’s Narada’s version of Rama, Ravana and Sita’s story, which has Rama killing Ravana, conquering Lanka and living happily ever after with Sita. His Ramayana ends there. However, Narada’s retelling features in Valmiki’s Ramayana, and Valimiki continues the story to tell us about Rama becoming king, his decision to separate from Sita because of rumours about her fidelity and the couple’s final meeting, which ends catastrophically with Sita choosing to leave Rama in absolutely final terms.

What does Brahma have to do with any of this? Well, the one who commissioned Valmiki to write the Ramayana is Brahma. So arguably, the version of the Ramayana that is considered the ‘original’ by many is actually Brahma’s take on the epic. In it, the Vaishnav Narada’s story becomes a part of Brahma’s interpretation of Vishnu’s avatar. This would certainly explain why Rama doesn’t come across as a classic and perfect hero in Valmiki’s version. Rama in Valmiki’s Ramayana frequently loses sight of his being divine. The oldest parts of the text depict him as a regular mortal. (If you want adoration for a decidedly divine Rama, read Tulsidas’s telling.)

So regardless of the state of technological affairs, stories and ideas have survived in Hinduism because this is a religion that hasn’t abandoned ideas, but collected them. All it takes is for the idea to have a few backers. Even if they are under-privileged like women or those we now term Dalits, their stories have managed to make a little space for themselves in Hinduism. This is the point of Doniger’s The Hindus:

This book tells the story of Hinduism chronologically and historically and emphasizes the history of marginalized rather than mainstream Hindus. My aims have been to demonstrate:

  1. that Hindus throughout their long history have been enriched by the contributions of women, the lower castes, and other religions;
  2. that although there are a number of things that have been characteristic of many Hindus over the ages (the worship of several gods, reincarnation, karma), none has been true of all Hindus, and the shared factors are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the things that are unique to one group or another;
  3. that the greatness of Hinduism – its vitality, its earthiness, its vividness – lies precisely in many of those idiosyncratic qualities that some Hindus today are ashamed of and would deny; and
  4. that the history of tensions between various Hinduisms, and between the different sorts of Hindus, undergirds the violence of the contemporary Indian political and religious scene.

History and diversity – let me lay them out one by one.

And so Doniger does, over the next 680-odd pages. The stories she shares, having rummaged for decades through the Sanskrit originals, are fascinating. Her interpretations are thought provoking, whether or not you agree with them. Doniger doesn’t present her take on the texts she’s interpreting as the final word, but as a persuasive possibility. She puts forward ideas that she’s developed over years of research and study. Rigidity appears in the attitudes of her detractors who would have us believe she’s an outsider and should not be allowed to study Hinduism, even though she is a Sanskritist and approaches the religion’s texts with greater respect and understanding than the devout Hindu who uses religious text to justify communalism. Doniger may have the training and the language skills that allow her to access the original texts, but that’s not enough for her haters.

When Penguin chose to not fight a legal case supporting Doniger against Dinanath Batra and others, the publishing house chose to back Batra’s story over Doniger’s. As one of the largest publishing houses in the world, one imagines it could have afforded to step into the legal fray even though these cases tend to go on for years. But Penguin chose to surrender instead, allowing Doniger’s detractors to say that her publishers didn’t think her work was worth supporting. Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with Doniger and The Hindus, Penguin decided to throw in its lot with Batra and the Hindutva brigade that is making a concerted effort to strangle the diversity out of Hinduism.

The first time I read Doniger’s writing was 15 years ago and at the time, I had no idea what a towering figure she was in her field. By the time I’d finished reading the first page, I wanted to read everything of Doniger’s on which I could get my hands. This wasn’t just because of how she quoted from the original texts to support her theories or the fact that she could cheerfully use the word “twaddle” in an academic treatise. Although I hadn’t read even half of what she had, there were occasions when I found myself disagreeing with her take on certain stories, but those occasions only made me want to read more of her work. The reason I’ve followed Doniger’s writing over the years is because her love for Hindu myths and ancient literature is infectious. She reminded me of the rich inheritance of philosophy and stories that is my inheritance. She’s done more to preserve and nurture that inheritance than most Hindus have.

Perhaps with The Hindus  being available for free as a pirated e-book, more people will end up flipping through the tome. Some may even read the whole thing. It’s possible Penguin India can’t be bothered to fight for Doniger because a different Indian publisher has brought out the books she’s written since The Hindus. But all those celebrating the exit of The Hindus  from the Indian intellectual space would do well to remember what happened with Narada and Brahma. Forcing the book underground won’t make the stories disappear.

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