Whose history is it anyway?
By Dr. Aseem Shukla
History empowers and history emasculates. History, like art, is beautiful or odious to the beholder. There are winners and losers when history is assessed, and there are protagonists and antagonists. Historians recognize the onerous burden of their profession in these times when a spare use of the word “genocide” in the House of Representatives to describe events in Armenia decades ago led Turkey to recall its ambassador. And politics infuses the narratives of history. Anti-Semitism, Marxism, white supremacy, all are known to prejudice renditions of peoples, cultures and religions.
Historian Wendy Doniger, professor of the History of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, finds herself in the midst of a history book kerfufflle of her own. Doniger, long enjoying exalted status as the doyen of Hindu studies in the American academy, faces scrutiny now in an unfolding drama involving her latest book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. An online petition asking Penguin Press, the publishers of the book, to hold publication and demand revisions is approaching 10,000 signatures. And when the book was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, Hindu activists staged a rare protest outside the award ceremony last week (the book did not win).
Hindus know that Doniger was derailed before. In 2003, Microsoft retracted a chapter on Hinduism written by Doniger for its online encyclopedia after a heavily publicized internet campaign protested factual and interpretive errors in her essay. In the end, a Hindu writer, providing the emic, or insider’s perspective, wrote an entry that depicted Hinduism in the light that practitioners would actually recognize.
This latest “alternative” history book was released a year ago, but opposition has escalated after a newer edition was released in India a few weeks ago and the book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award (she didn’t win).
That there would be trouble was apparent right from the preface of her book. There, Doniger asserts that hers is not a history of how Hinduism is lived today, but rather offers a “narrative alternative” to the one found in Hinduism’s holiest scriptures. This 780-page tome is set as Doniger’s rendering of Hinduism’s history based–we are to assume–on her own interpretations of scripture, her own biases and inclinations. Infamous for her penchant to sexualize, eroticize and exoticise passages from some of the holiest Hindu epics and scriptures–often invoking a Freudian psychoanalytic lens–Doniger has been accused of knowingly polarizing and inflaming. She does not disappoint.
I revisit her work now not just because Doniger provokes so many of us in the Hindu American community. Doniger represents what many believe to be a fundamental flaw in the academic study of Hinduism: that Hindu studies is too often the last refuge of idiosyncratic and irreligious academics presenting themselves as “experts” on a faith that they study without the insight, recognition or reverence of, in this case, a practicing Hindu or even non-Hindu–striving to study Hinduism from the insider’s perspective–would offer.
As a surgeon working in the medical school of a large university, I hold my academic freedom as sacrosanct. My own writings, even here on On Faith, are a reflection of the liberty I presume and cannot compromise. But this freedom comes with a sober responsibility. When I publish manuscripts and books, I am personally responsible for the veracity of the contents, statistical calculations, and scientific conclusions. These are not always empirical, and much editorializing is demanded. But my freedom is predicated on the accuracy of my work and the fairness of my conclusions. And errors, or playing fast and loose with editorial privilege in fact, if purposeful, can lead to harsh legal and ethical repercussions.
An “alternative” rendering is, of course, Doniger’s right. But when venturing into the alternate, if the factual is deprecated and editorializing privileged, if the treatment of a religion adhered to by over a billion is rendered unrecognizable in its iteration, a door is opened to bias, spin and errors. Over the last year, these are what many believe to have uncovered, and the ramifications are real.
“Tell me where I have interpreted something wrong,” Doniger challenged her critics and the gauntlet was picked up. Factual inaccuracies in her latest book were detailed in a prominent Indian media outlet, and a lay historian, Vishal Agarwal, posted a detailed, chapter by chapter riposte to Doniger’s history that has been widely circulated. Not phrased in the niceties of academic parlance, perhaps, but Agarwal’s methodical work opens the door to questions about Doniger’s research, attention to detail, methodology, and more disturbingly, intentions behind her latest venture. Another detailed rebuttal to a single chapter spanning over twenty-two pages was posted by another writer this week.
Parallelisms in her book conjure up obsolete anecdotes comparing the sacred stone linga representing Lord Shiva to a leather strap-on sex toy, and Lord Rama, one of the most widely worshiped deities, is psychoanalyzed to have acted out of fear that he was becoming a sex-addict like his father. As Agarwal shows, Doniger’s prose is replete with cutesy, perhaps, but offensive and jejune turns of phrases such as, “If the motto of Watergate was ‘Follow the money’, the motto of the history of Hinduism could well be ‘Follow the monkey’ or, more often ‘Follow the horse’.” And in another section, her interpretations of the Rig Veda, the most ancient of the Vedas that Hindus consider sacred, Doniger sees incest and adultery with a pregnant woman in a verse praying to God for protection and safe delivery.
A Danish cartoonist would be hard pressed to match the disturbing parodies of a believer’s faith that Doniger offers throughout the book. The great Hindu yogi, Patanjali, cautioned in the 2nd century BCE against falling into the trap of false “meaning making” when reading scriptures that contain subtle, esoteric meanings as well as moral edicts. Doniger’s book, then, could be read as an idiosyncratic exposition that is “meaning making” out of profound revelations perhaps not meant for the spiritually untrained, untempered, and non-seeking mind.
It is not just that there are documented errors in fact predicated on errors in interpretation and context, but Hindus argue that Doniger seems to delight in celebrating the most obscure and arcane of anecdotes or stories from the hoary expanse of Hindu epics and scriptures. Privileging the absurd–dissembling it as an alternative–comes across as a specious exercise of a motivated author seeking spice to sell books.
It would seem a given that a book on religious history–intertwined with all of the inherent faith, emotion, and sensibilities that religion evokes in believers–would be approached with a modicum of restraint and sensitivity, if not deference. But instead, Doniger delights in inverting the filial into the incestuous, devotion into eroticism, and pride into chauvinism.
Whether such a licentious foray into Hinduism studies is protected by free speech is not the question. Doniger can write and believe what she wishes. But Hindus are asking if publishers should bear responsiblity for copious factual and interpretive errors.
This demand from Hindus to combat Doniger’s view of their religion cannot be reduced to an unhinged ban-the-book crusade. Asking a publisher to hold publishing of a book until errors are corrected carries strong recent precedent. Recall that publication of the Jewel of Medina was abruptly dropped by Random House last year when fear grew that a story about one of the wives of the prophet Muhammad would spark violence from the Muslim community, and just last week, publisher Holt and Company halted publication of Last Train from Hiroshima when factual errors were uncovered in critical parts of the book.
Doniger’s alternate version of Hindu history, now playing in over 700 libraries in North America and Europe, raises a real fear that her “alternative” will become the mainstream. This issue is important to a minority striving to take control of its own narrative–a struggle repeated by generations of Americans as their voice grows and progeny prospers.
It remains to be seen if Hindus will prove their latest case against Doniger in the court of public opinion, but analagous allegations of academic bias are well known. The Southern Poverty Law Center continues to wage a public campaign against an anti-Semitic professor at Cal State Long Beach, and open protests continue against a faculty member holding white supremacy views at the University of Vermont. Each professor has academic freedom, but an agitating laity is wondering if institutions must support the mendacity of bigoted players devaluing that freedom.
Doniger has tended to dismiss criticisms from Hindus as politically motivated, chauvinistic, sexist, casteist–the list is long. It is as Vamsee Julluri, Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, wrote:
“The academy has gone almost directly from the Orientalist myth of Hindu superstition to the postmodern concern about Hindu fundamentalism, without even a notice of the great Hindu religion in between, and what it means to its followers and admirers. The academy must engage with Hinduism more positively.”
Academic freedom is sacrosanct. But academic legitimacy in the eyes of the public sets a much higher bar.