Alternative Histories, Alternative Publics

NOTE: This post represents the opinions of the author alone, and not necessarily those of the “Indian Philosophy Blog.”

Many of you may already have read about Penguin India’s decision to recall and pulp all copies of Wendy Doniger’s 2009 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. in response to a series of legal challenges from a right-wing Hindu group. This decision raises important questions about the foundations of free speech, and especially the freedom to conduct serious and critical scholarly research. There is the issue of whether Indian law provides sufficient protection to scholars—article 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code makes it a criminal offense to “insult the religious beliefs” of anyone—and there is the potentially larger issue of how we can hope to have, in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy, a space for critical discussion that is protected from censorship and intimidation.

Readers of this blog might know well that India has long traditions of argumentation, and these have always involved “taking the other side seriously”: one of the foundations of Indian philosophical discourse is taking the trouble to read and deeply understand your opponent’s views, presenting those views fairly and in good faith, and then and only then subjecting those views to a reasoned critique. This is not just a courtesy, but an essential precondition of philosophical discourse as such: people like Bhaṭṭa Jayanta would always prefer to engage with positions that were different from their own, rather than to silence them, even when the differences concerned those things that are arguably most important—the existence of God, for example. And some traditions even built the many-sided nature of truth into the very foundations of their philosophy. The politics of outrage and offence, and the struggle to ban and silence competing viewpoints, are antithetical to this long tradition of reasoned debate. They impoverish public discourse and they endanger critique and the kind of truths that depend on critique.

I would like to alert readers to an online petition asking Penguin India to reverse its decision and demanding the revision of the sections of the Indian Penal Code involved in this controversy.

16 thoughts on “Alternative Histories, Alternative Publics

  1. Try being here and arguing for that position. You’d be surprised at how many otherwise reasonable people get all worked up about this. I’d like to think that this is intimately connected with the fact that now serious Sanskritic scholarship has dwindled in the country and can largely be found in Japan and the west.

    • DS, what surprises me is that it would make sense to say that today’s Indian fundamentalism is in many senses a product imported from the West. Why not being proud of India’s argumentative history instead of attacking someone for, e.g., thinking that the Rāmāyaṇa is not history? By the way, the Mahābhārata is traditionally believed to be a itihāsa, whereas the Rāmāyaṇa is traditionally considered an ādikāvya, thus, nothing new and non-traditional in Doniger’s statements —which can and need to be criticised, but from a different standpoint.

      • elisa freschi, absolutely. But, not just historically. A majority of the funding of hindu right organisations come from Indians settled in the US. Moreover, due to the efforts of Malhotra et al. some views seems to have acquired an air of scholarly legitmacy. Just yesterday I read Aditi Banerjee’s 2009 article in the Outlook on Doniger’s book and I kept wondering how many people do I know who can make an informed judgement of that essay. Normally in such cases, a reasonable way out is to perhaps make an appeal to relevant authority. But that’s not an option here, even though Banerjee has a JD and is not a scholar in sanskrit.

        I have found very reasonable people breaking out in to what is nothing more than conspiracy stories of ‘white academic colonialism’. Of course, this is the one of the true legacies of having being colonised, even after almost seventy years of Independence — we are yet to view ourselves straight. Unfortunately, even if the only means to correct this is through education, broader economic and cultural realities do not favour such learning over say, engineering (not to mention the state of education and research here, which is also a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue).

    • DS, your point about the dearth of Sanskritic scholarship seems spot on here. People could read, for example, Shankara’s argument in this Bhashya that the details of the actual depictions of the cosmos in the sacred texts aren’t really important (and hence, there is no need to worry about their contradictions) because the deep point is to recognize our dependence on Brahman. And so on. Without a depth of learning, then everything becomes in some way sacred and unchangeable with no nuance.

      • Yes. In this sense, I think we have some moral obligation to explain that there is an Indian way to deal with the Sacred Texts (e.g., based on the Mīmāṃsā exegesis) which allows for both religious devotion and condemn of any literal fundamentalism.

  2. Elisa, I’m intrigued by the suggestion that this mode of fundamentalism is imported from the west. My hunch would be to press back against that, in this sense: There is a spectrum of of conservative and liberal approaches to history in any robust tradition, and thus, people who would go too far to the right into reactionary views which conflate the mythic past with historical fact.

    It’s not my area of specialization, but I am aware of debates between Indian astronomers (siddhantakas) who would argue with adherents to of the Puranas over the veracity of the cosmological descriptions in the latter. People who cling to the Puranas in this way would be the ancestors of the folks we now speak of.

    If, as DS suggests, it’s a matter of funding, that’s one thing. But you seem to suggests that as an ideology it is coming from the west, and I prima-facie, I’d think that the raw ingredients for fundamentalism are already there.

    These are just some thoughts for the sake of inviting more clarification.

    • Matthew, my point was not that fundamentalism was born in the West, but rather that *today’s* fundamentalism has been influenced by Western ideologies. In this sense, I agree with DS and with the influence of the US fundamentalism —one should not forget that the history-book polemics arouse in a country where also Christian fundamentalists discuss about school books. I do not think that this is a coincidence.
      I agree with you that polemics about the literal understanding of the Rāmāyaṇa, etc., have been current also in Classical India (see the interesting article by Robert Goldman on “Rivista di Studi Sudasiatici” 1). Once again, I am just talking about today’s new-fundamentalism.

    • In my view, fundamentalism per se is generally a Western (including Islamic) phenomenon – but I don’t see a good reason for calling this fundamentalism. The term “fundamentalism” is useless if it means nothing more than “bad conservative religious movements”.

      • I am calling it thus because it assumes that there is a single truth for one’s Sacred Texts, which need to be literally interpreted according to a naïve realistic framework (remember the accusation to W. Doniger that she wrote that the Rāmāyaṇa is “fictional”).

        • I am not at all sure how much of a literal interpretation is being taken here, or for that matter “naïve” realism.

          Here is the full text of the legal objection to Doniger’s work. Notice that the author specifically objects to Sanskrit scriptures other than the Vedas (which would have to include the Rāmāyana) being put on a level with the Vedas – but mentions almost nothing about any words written in the Vedas themselves. When he does, he cites Doniger’s own translation to supposedly indicate that the “cattle” being slaughtered are not actually cows – he’s not defending the truth of any claims in the Veda, but its conformity to his preexisting beliefs and practices.

          It’s also worth noting that the author nowhere says Doniger’s claim of the Rāmāyana being fiction is false, merely that the claim has hurt feelings (and under Indian law, that is enough)! That does not sound to me like it comes out of a commitment here to realism of any kind, “naïve” or otherwise.

          I see effectively nothing in this document that expresses anything equivalent to the key idea in modern fundamentalism – that a given claim must be true because it is in a sacred text. The only times any Indian texts are quoted (which is not many), it is to defend the status of those texts or other texts – it is not making any arguments that anything in those texts are true. This is really not comparable to Christian or Islamic scripturalism, and we seriously misunderstand it if we think that it is.

          • Thank you Amod, I now realise that I had read an abridged version of the legal objection. The basic problem with the legal objection is that it does not really engage with anything at all (it does not seem that they really read Wendy Doniger’s book, nor do they refer to specific texts which should be interpreted in a different way). Thus, in interpreting it one needs to supply something to the implicit theoretical background.
            This being said, I had been interpreting the legal objection along the line of a trend in modern Hinduism which says that the Rāmāyaṇa is part of history (see No. 21, where the reference to the feelings of Hindus is just needed for legal reasons, the point seems to me that the Rāmāyaṇa is NOT fiction –a claim not sustained by traditional references to it not as itihāsa but as ādikāvya), that the submarine rocks between India and Sri Lanka have been spread by Hanumān, etc. This trend I would call of literal fundamentalism (i.e., claiming that the letter of the Rāmāyaṇa should count).
            I now see that the legal objection has other strong elements, most of all the puritan tendency to desexualise in every possible way “Hindu” texts.

      • To put it perhaps more precisely, as a historical event, fundamentalism was in response to particular tensions born of modernity. But it seems like some of the key philosophical and psychological underpinnings of it are simply human. Remember that some people raged at Socrates’ supposed rejection of the divinity of the heavenly bodies, etc.

        • As above: I don’t think there is an “it” here. Those who condemned Socrates could be called religious conservatives, but they weren’t fundamentalists – and the same is true of Dina Nath Batra, the author of this legal notice.

  3. I realise I used the wrong English word in my last reply to Amod: What I meant at the end was that the influence of the (British Victorian) prudishness is evident in the attempt to blame Doniger for everything which could make “Hindu” religion look “sexual”.

    By the way, in case you did not read it already, you might want to throw a glance through this article:

    It starts with the attempt of showing the psychological attitude of the Hindutva people and/but also highlights the paradoxical fact that they end up retelling the Orientalist tale about India and Hinduism (although with a different ending), Sexophoby is a telling example in this sense.

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